Where Are The Record Label Best Practices?

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RapidShare’s recent release of its new best practices for cloud storage service throws into stark relief the lengths to which online platforms will go to avoid the wrath—justified or not—of incumbent content distributors like record labels. As we watch digital distributors adopt “best practices” that go well beyond their legal obligations under copyright law to prevent copyright infringement, one obvious question comes to mind: Where are the record label best practices?

Last week RapidShare announced its new “Responsible Practices for Cloud Storage Services,” in which RapidShare promises to go above and beyond its copyright law obligations to stop infringement—and urges other cloud storage services to do the same.

RapidShare is obviously free to assume additional responsibilities if it so chooses, but its best practices document implies that cloud services that choose to simply comply with copyright law and its safe harbor provisions are somehow morally deficient or in favor of copyright infringement. RapidShare’s recommendations are also specifically tailored to its service and business model, and so it’s wrong to assume that different cloud services can or should adopt the same practices.

More broadly, this move seems fairly clearly to be calculated to alleviate pressure from incumbent content distributors like record labels to hold digital platforms directly responsible for their users’ infringement. Especially after seeing the experience of services like Hotfile and MegaUpload, RapidShare is probably willing to take fairly substantial steps to make sure it doesn't get targeted next, whether the claims would hold water or not.

But as we watch online storage platforms bend over backwards to curry favor with incumbent content distributors (who weren’t satisfied anyway), the obvious question is: Where are the record label best practices?

After all, if RapidShare is willing to go to such great lengths to protect artists on its platforms, shouldn’t record labels—the companies that musicians have actually hired to navigate the marketing and distribution landscape for them—be willing to go even farther to help their artists succeed in the marketplace?

What would record label best practices actually look like?  A lot could be written on this topic, but here are a few ideas to start the conversation:

  • Seek out and encourage new online distribution platforms. The best way to fight piracy is to offer convenient, affordable ways for fans to legally access music. As the companies that have promised artists they will handle the logistics of getting their music to market, record labels should be actively seeking to do just that. The good news is that innovators are chomping at the bit to start new digital platforms that serve consumer demand for music. These companies are the answers to record labels’ problems, and labels need to actively encourage their growth. Just like record labels seek out new artists, they need to seek out and develop new distribution tools.
  • Make licensing easy. Especially for uses that don’t qualify for statutory compulsory licenses under copyright law, getting licenses can be very tricky. Record labels should make it as easy as possible for distribution platforms to obtain direct licenses to use their sound recordings. Some of this is pretty basic: putting licensing information on labels’ websites, have a designated office or contact person to receive requests, and respond to inquiries quickly.
  • Only request reasonable licensing terms from new online distributors. Within reason, record labels should meet new digital platforms where they’re at. Labels should not demand millions or hundreds of millions of dollars in advances from young companies that can’t afford them, because that hampers the licensee’s ability to get funding from investors. Labels should not demand a percentage of the licensee’s revenue that.
  • Maintain healthy business relationships with artists. As new online platforms give artists increasingly viable options to sustain careers without signing to a major label or a label at all, record labels must re-evaluate how they’re treating their artists. Record labels should think of recording artists as their customers and aim to treat them well. Reports of labels trying to take copyrights away from artists’ heirs, claiming to be the authors of recordings when they’ve only bought the copyrights, or hiding their accounting information from artists will only make artists more eager to avoid record labels whenever possible. If they want to attract the best new talent, it’s in record labels’ interest to treat artists with integrity.

It seems every day we see more and more online companies taking measures to serve artists better. It’s time for record labels to join the chorus. Labels must start focusing on treating their artists well and providing the service they promise: helping artists succeed in the recorded music market.

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