Law Revision Could Muzzle China's Music Industry

The revision to the existing Chinese copyright law that was proposed on March 31 by the National Copyright Administration poses a great threat to the music-makers of this country, songwriters and composers alike. It embodies all that has gone wrong with the music industry in the past decade and represents a dim future for the Chinese music community.

In China's current (unrevised) copyright legislation, it is not permitted to use recordings of musical works without the permission of the copyright owner. Once granted, a one-time fee could be negotiated between user and owner, the details of which would be strictly between the two parties.

The proposed new revision, however, takes away this basic right. The revision states that songs may be used without the permission of the original author if they have been published for at least three months or more. Those who wish to use the songs would have to contact the National Copyright Administration governed by the State Council and then specify the original author and source of the material. Reusing the material requires a fee to be paid to the copyright collective management organization (currently China Audio-Video Copyright Association is the only such organization – the editor) and then it is this organization that would be responsible for transferring payment to the original authors.

For the past several weeks, this has been a hot topic within the heart of Beijing's contemporary music scene. Band members of the country's musical epicenter are conscious of the fact that the meager control they have over their intellectual property may soon be swept out from beneath them.

Unlike Western countries, the sale of recorded music has never really been an income source in China. Back when there were street sellers of black market CDs and cassettes that had been salvaged from overseas returns absorbed by China for the recycling industry, their plastic cases hole-punched to identify them as such, China was just beginning its race in the world of piracy and was already out in front. Its preeminence has not yet waned.

While some early Chinese acts did sell fairly well in the 1990s, modern acts have never been able to rely on their record sales to support them. Even active bands with multiple album releases, international touring experience and thousands of fans on the mainland alone rarely associate their income with copyright.

Free downloads are endorsed here as a way of life. Google and Baidu have negotiated deals with foreign and domestic music labels to enable free online access to millions of songs with a quick click on the download icon. In this climate, bands can only sustain on performance fees. When they can secure the occasional licensing fee that comes from the negotiation of the use of their recorded work, for which they are the copyright owners, it's a bonus.

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