Don’t feed the Copyright Trolls

Happy new year!

Cath here, slightly hungover and somewhat annoyed.

Last night we put up a video of Auld Lang Syne, as it was New Year’s Eve. Almost immediately a copyright claim popped up claiming we have used the melody of Sku Gammel Venskaw Rein Forgo (the Danish (?) translation of Auld Lang Syne). Copyright claims have happened to us before, our video of Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon. What it means from a practical point of view is that the video is monetized, and unless we fight the claim the money from the video goes to the copyright holders.

YouTube copyright claim claiming we have used the melody of Sku Gammel Venskaw Rein Forgo

This is fine, except this happens automatically. As soon as a claim is made the adverts go up, and continue after you have filed a defence. You are guilty until you prove otherwise.

I think it goes without saying that Muserk Rights Management do not own the melody to Auld Lang Syne, it was written 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional folk song (Roud # 6294). Robert Burns sent a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum with the remark, “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man”.

After the invention of the printing press printers would simply copy popular works, a kind of mediaeval Napster of treatsies, ideas, sedatious pamphlets and the suchlike. Ideas spread fast but printers needed a constant stream of content to stay in business.  

The first real copyright law (I’m sparing you a paragraph on the Licensing of the Press Act 1662) was the Statute of Anne, also known as the Copyright Act of 1710. This prescribed a copyright term of 14 years, with a provision for renewal for another 14 years.

After the enactment of the statute only the author or printers licensed by the author could publish the author’s creations. Were the copyright limits of the Statute of Ann still in force (the Statute didn’t protect music), Killing Moon, published in 1984, would have fallen into the public domain in 2012.

But of course the Statute of Anne is no longer law and I don’t think Martin’s suggestion that folk singers should be able to rely on 18th Century law because we sing 18th Century songs would convince a judge. Sparing you a complete history of copyright, I’ll just say that music was finally subject to copyright in 1842, 54 years after Burns set the poem to an already old tune.

The law as it stands in the UK (and most of Europe) protects works for the author’s life plus 70 years. Today, the works of Kurt Weill, George Orwell and George Bernard Shaw enter the public domain.

I don’t need to dust off my law degree to prove that Auld Lang Syne is in the public domain. It clearly is. We will win the copyright dispute and the ads will come off. But, as you might have noticed, Auld Lang Syne is (for most people) a seasonal song. We wanted to put something up for our fans and we didn’t want them to sit through an advert first.

This is becoming increasingly common. A violinist friend had a copyright claim on her performances of a piece by Bach (who died in 1750). Professional folk musicians Jon Squiers and Jackie Oates’ Christmas performance was almost put in jeopardy by someone claiming copyright on O Come O Come Emmanuel, which dates from the 1400s. And this can only happen because someone is going to rights management companies with very old works and saying “I own this”. And the rights managements companies are not checking they do. And some people will not fight back.

Muserk Rights Management will be getting a strongly worded letter, once I find out how to contact them. It will contain the phrase “somewhat surprised,” which is lawyer speak for “incandescent with rage at the complete lack of legal basis for your claim”

It has also made us think about our relationship with YouTube. We are far too small to monetise the channel so when we put things on YouTube we are giving them content for free. We have the option to not do that, of course, but it’s the easiest way of putting our work (especially live performances) under the noses of people who might book us. People will ask if we’re on YouTube, if we respond with some long explanation of how to find our stuff on some other channel they won’t bother. And I do appreciate that YouTube need to have a mechanism for enforcing copyright claims. They could also have a mechanism for crediting copyright owners when one puts up a cover version, we have some covers that are sufficiently different to the originals to not trigger whatever bots ping up the copyright claims. If we performed the covers in a pub we would dutifully report that we had done so to PRS so that the composers got the (very small) amount of money they were owed, and we would be accepting of adverts on our other cover versions (or to take them down if that’s what the rights holders wanted). Last night we pushed the version on our Facebook page, rather than YouTube (which we would normally do in the vain hope of getting someone to hit subscribe).

2020 has been a difficult year for musicians and one that has pushed lots of them online. Unless you have the clout to get people to pay for a ticketed event, or fans who will actually pay for a download, it’s difficult to make any money at all online. Spotify and YouTube are eager for content but less eager to put their hands in their pockets.

You can download our version of Auld Lang Syne for free at but while you are there consider buying a track as well, to keep me in green ink.

And next time you hear something on Spotify or YouTube that you like consider buying something direct from the artist, so when there are live gigs again there will still be musicians to perform at them.



One thought on “Don’t feed the Copyright Trolls

  • Di Braid

    Very well written Cath, it’s something I’ve heard from lots of fellow musicians posting on Social Media.

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