The Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers, the nation’s largest music copyright management organization, is at loggerheads with a group of operators of major private music classes, including makers of musical instruments, over a plan to collect copyright fees for their use of sheet music under JASRAC’s management. JASRAC and the music class operators should make every effort to find middle ground so they can ensure the healthy development of music education while duly protecting the rights of copyright holders.

In June, some 250 operators of music classes filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court asking the court to determine that JASRAC has no right to collect the fees. JASRAC says that its plan is tenable under the Copyright Law, which stipulates that composers and lyric writers have the exclusive right to perform their works publicly. At issue is the question of whether the right covers a music performance during a private music class.

JASRAC is entrusted by composers and lyric writers with collecting copyright fees on their behalf for tunes used by such entities as TV and radio broadcasters and karaoke shops. It plans to have operators of private music classes pay 2.5 percent of the tuition fees they collect as copyright fees.

In a court hearing early this month, the plaintiffs said collection of the copyright fees will financially damage the business of music classes, thereby reducing opportunities for people to learn to play music. They argue that playing a song during a private music class is not a public performance and should not be covered by the Copyright Law provision. JASRAC argues that since the music class operators earn some ¥72.1 billion a year through the use of sheet music created by composers and lyric writers, it is irrational that they have not paid copyright fees to the creators.

JASRAC has been in talks with music class operators over the issue since 2003. Since the negotiations bore no fruit, it announced the fee collection plan last February, prompting the legal action by the music class operators.

Since 2011, JASRAC has expanded the scope of its copyright fee collection, covering such establishments as dance classes, singing classes and fitness clubs. This year, it filed petitions for civil conciliation at courts in order to collect copyright fees from some 350 shops such as beauty parlors and boutiques that play background music. With its monopoly in the business of music copyright management, JASRAC collected ¥111.8 billion in fiscal 2016. A 1988 Supreme Court ruling on karaoke bars serves as one of the legal grounds for JASRAC’s fee collections. The top court ruled that since operators of karaoke shops make profits by letting customers sing with the equipment they provide, they must take responsibility for the customers’ performance and thereby get permission for the act from relevant copyright holders.

In discussing the dispute between JASRAC and music class operators, the Copyright Law’s broad purpose should be noted. Article 1 of the law says that it seeks not only to protect the rights of people who have created cultural products but also give due regard to the fair use of these products and thereby contribute to the development of culture. The fee collection by JASRAC will put financial pressure on the operation of music classes. The operators may either raise their tuition or, to avoid paying the fees, stop using popular contemporary music and rely on pieces whose copyright has expired. In July, an association of major private music class operators submitted signatures of some 560,000 people opposing JASRAC’s plan to the Cultural Affairs Agency. An official of the association charges that JASRAC’s plan could cause music culture to wither and the number of people playing musical instruments to decline.

Some people say that performing music for the purposes of teaching and practice should be distinguished from the musical entertainment that takes place in karaoke shops. The operators of music classes stress their educational nature and point out that the Copyright Law spares music performances in schools from copyright fees. It is permissible, the law says, to publicly perform, present and/or recite a work already made public for nonprofit purposes and if no fees are charged to the audience.

The music class operators and JASRAC should make out-of-court efforts to find a middle ground that both parties can live with. For example, perhaps they could settle on a reduced copyright fee in view of the educational aspects of music classes.

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