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Is the SIAE as bad as they say?

If you happen to have ploughed through http://alex-wilding.com/2014/03/busking-in-italy/ you will not be surprised about the resentment felt by many musicians regarding the SIAE (the Italian copyright-collecting agency). In the past, this had been a matter of stories that I had heard, but now I am in the middle of direct experience. We will see whether they are the outrageous quasi-fascist leeches that some people say, or whether they will be reasonable. I will let you know how it goes. Here is the story:

Last Saturday I did what is perhaps best described as a “benefit” gig for a local health food shop, where I have performed before a couple of times. Key points are – an audience of maybe up to 30, nobody paid, nobody got paid, and it was combined with a “tasting” of wine and olive oil. Some tables were put out on the little square outside the shop, and I believe that a little bit of extra trade was done during the hour or so that I played. It’s also important to note that I have changed my repertoire, dropping old favourites like “Love Letters Straight From Your Heart”. This is a deliberate policy, tailored for Italian circumstances – I no longer do any songs in which other people hold copyright. To be sure, the current set includes things like “House of the Rising Sun”, and there would indeed be copyright holders for various recordings of that, such as the famous Animals version, or the Bob Dylan version they learnt it from, or the Dave van Ronk version that Bob Dylan learnt it from, before which it was known as a more “generic” sort of blues. So those *recordings* would be copyright, and if you play them as background music you might be liable to pay copyright fees. But the song itself goes back further.

Unfortunately I did not make it clear in advance to Simona, who manages the shop, that this was the case and she, since there had been more publicity, went to see the SIAE and ended up paying 70 euros! Now the only person with any claims to hold copyright in what I performed is myself. Arrangements of some of the old standards are mine, and some of what I played was indeed my own composition. I have not, however, assigned my rights to any collecting agency, let alone the SIAE. They, therefore, had no right to collect fees on my behalf. If they say that my music is subject to their authority (which clearly isn’t), then I would want to know how and when I get my share of the €70. (Yes, fat chance of that, I know.)

I don’t know what Simona’s markup is, so let’s say that it’s 30%, just the sake of argument. That would mean that she would have had to turn over an *extra* €230 during the hour. Again, I don’t know what her sales were, but it’s hard to imagine that it came to that much.

The upshot is that the work of organising the performance and of giving it served one benefit: fattening the salaries and pensions of the SIAE staff, and boosting the copyright payments to their favourite people, none of whom had anything to do with any of the music that was played.

Anyway, they have been approached and informed that the whole thing is a mistake. Who knows? Perhaps they will say, “Oh, sorry, here is your money back”. We will see.

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