Collective licensing has been suggested as a possible answer to the most aggravating problems in the copyright system today. Managing orphan works, mass digitization, creating new online services for music and video – each of these challenges could be addressed, we are told, by empowering a single organization (or a set of them) to issue licenses and collect royalties on behalf of all relevant rightsholders. (They could also be addressed, in large part, by rolling back the excesses of the Berne Convention; we can all dream, anyway.)
Not unlike the Borg, a collective rights organization (CRO) assimilates all authors into a collective and offers licenses to use any (or all) of the rights in this collective portfolio. Also not unlike the Borg, CROs often have as part of their duties to prowl the universe looking for users who can be assimilated into their customer base, paying a steady stream of protection money for one of their blanket licenses.
So what happens when you deputize a private company to enforce the rights of absent or disinterested authors? Do all authors get paid their fair share? Are users treated fairly? Do collectives run efficiently? A new report from Jonathan Band collects some cautionary tales from the US and abroad that suggest CROs can pose real risks to rightsholders and users alike. As Jonathan writes:
The episodes collected below reveal a long history of corruption, mismanagement, confiscation of funds, and lack of transparency that has deprived artists of the revenues they earned. At the same time, CROs have often aggressively sought fees to which they were not legally entitled or in a manner that discredited the copyright system. While properly regulated CROs in some circumstances enhance efficiency and advance the interests of rights holders and users, policymakers must be aware of this history as they consider the appropriateness of CROs as a possible solution to a specific copyright issue.