How blockchain and big data are changing copyright law

Tuesday June 25 2019



Robert Kirunda

Robert Kirunda 

By Robert Kirunda

March 16, 2019. That is the date I recorded my first music album. At the beginning of the year, I promised the Capital Gang audience that I would rediscover my roots in the creative arts. As it turns out, this was not a joke.
I am following through. Making this album has showed me just how complex and costly it is to make good music. There is the process of getting lyrics, putting tunes to them, finding the right instrumentalists to play for you – good ones cost a pretty penny, and in some cases as in mine, finding the right band to sing along.

All this is before you start to think about how you will distribute your music. If you are producing music for money, you have to pay attention to copyright law, as this is the only way you will guarantee that the rights to that creation you own will return the heavy sunk investment.

Copyright law was initially designed to protect the expression of the idea and not the idea itself. But there are many people involved in expressing an idea well, so the field now includes neighbouring rights. This is an extension of the law that protects those other people in the ecosystem that are part of giving your idea life and helping us appreciate the quality of music.

But this area of the law is inadequate in ensuring that all the players realise fair value for their efforts. There is no effective way in Uganda to track just how many times a song is played and if such a mechanism exists, no artiste I have spoken to knows of it yet.

The producer who improves the idea in the studio or in the preparation phase only gets paid once at the production stage and will most often not get a part of the royalties that an artiste earns from their work, if any.

Royalties, as a concept, remain foreign to many Ugandan artistes.
These are challenges Uganda’s copyright enforcement mechanisms have not fixed yet. Elsewhere, these challenges have given rise to an opaque, inefficient and unfair system that puts the artiste at the end of the food chain. The artiste gets paid last and least.

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Technology is rearranging the music industry and putting the artiste at the centre. Because of platforms like YouTube, Spotify and Audiomack, the value is no longer just in how many people paid to come to a concert, but in the data that underlies downloads to the song. Audiomack will let you upload a song and provide you data of the demographics around your song.

Previously, the only ways that artistes would become famous were through radio stations playing their music and promoters throwing huge events. The Internet has changed that. There is still a role for all these players, but the landscape has changed. Data is the new measure of value. An up and coming artiste can upload their own music on these platforms and outsource the promoter’s role to the public to forward her music and debate it online.

But the system is still imperfect. Until online distribution houses started releasing data analytics on downloads, artistes did not know how many people were listening to their music or where the audiences were. Copyright law is certainly not the legal regime that will apply to the disputes that arise as to whether the artist is getting fair compensation for the value they create.

Moreover, copyright law still has no mechanisms that can equalise benefit sharing and improve transparency. This is where blockchain and big data come in.

There are at least six ways these 4IR technologies are disrupting the music industry. Three examples will suffice. Through smart contracts, blockchain can eliminate the complexity associated with the various challenges copyright law cannot address as yet.
Blockchain will make micrometering and micromonetising possible. Smart contracts will distribute the revenue to everyone involved in producing a track immediately the track is paid for, monitor where the track is played and ensure that payments are fair and made more efficiently. Royalty payments will not be on a quarterly or annual basis. They will be instant.

Usage Data analytics will be more accessible to the artists and this will enable artists to devise new ways to enhance their value, attract the right promoters, advertisers or other vendors of their music.

It will be easier to get MTN to sponsor an artiste’s event if they can demonstrate that they are famous, even though they have never thrown their first concert. The data is available for all to see and this makes it easy to track audiences without waiting on the analytics from Spotify, YouTube or Audiomack. Transparency and new models of digital rights management that are emerging on the blockchain are making self-launched artistes the next big thing in the music industry. It will be easier to discover unexploited talent, and to place a value to it.

Consequently, blockchain and big data are extending the parameters of copyright law. The next frontier of copyright enforcement will be driven by reliance on technology. Infringement will be easier to prove, but the measure of value has changed.

The arguments will go beyond whether there was value in the lyrics. The value is now in the data. Copyright law is no longer in protecting just expression, the value is now in perception and appreciation of those works. The evidence is in the metadata and copyright infringement will be easier to prove using blockchain.

Artistes ought to pay attention to: The enforcement of their rights is getting easier. Lawyers too need to understand how this new paradigm works. Yes, it is already in use elsewhere and will eventually arrive here. Do look out for that album when I release the music soon. If you love hymns, I hope you sing along. In the meantime, I am looking for a coder to write my smart contract.

Mr Kirunda is a partner at Kirunda & Wasige Advocates and a member of the National Taskforce
on 4th Industrial Revolution.

Dr Muniini Mulera’s colum returns next week.

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