I don’t know whether this one has hit US shores already – or if there is any other country that knows about it. But there’s something going on in Germany.

Again, it’s about licensing. We already had our share of GEMA within the past few weeks (see Rapidshare and Jamendo). Read about it at ContentSphere, or do it over at TechDirt. GEMA, Germany’s only collections society, still is surprisingly entertaining (if you’re into cynism).

But, there’s some uprising fresh breeze, and it’s coming from Germany’s most southward located town: Sonthofen.

Once Upon a Time, Live Action Had Been on the Stage…

In Sonthofen, Monika Bestle runs the Sonthofener Kulturwerkstatt, a cultural centre in the little town of 20.000 citizens. Don’t be mislead by the rather old school amateur website look. Even if you don’t speak any German, you definitely will notice the omnipresence of GEMA focused topics. Due to bad experiences Bestle gained in organising cultural events dealing with GEMA, the online home of the Sonthofener Kulturwerkstatt became the center of quite many people to share similar experiences.

Eventually, 13 years of interaction and talks with artists made Bestle decide to take an important step.

… Now, Action Is Taken to Federal Parliament.

She initiated an petition to collect votes to achieve a hearing at a German Federal Parliament committee. You can download the form [link broken, 2016-03-10] to get concertgoers and other people signing in. But most importantly, for some time now there’s an official online platform by German government to submit inquiries for petitions. And Monika Bestle took the chance and got hers started.

Uprising on the Internet.

On 12 June, only 17 days ago, the petition had #2.800 votes. Right now, at this very moment on 28 June, it clocks in at exactly 78.514 votes – and counting [link broken, 2016-03-10].

So what!?

You may wonder – why? What’s that all about? What’s the benefit?

Let me cut it short here. Elsewhere, you’ll find more details to it. I’m adding a separate article giving some examples tomorrow. There are five main problems with GEMA that are shared by a lots of artists and event managers and people who get in touch with the billing carried out by GEMA.

  • Lack of transparency:
    • Vast number of forms to choose from when applying for a license.
    • Varying conditions of calculation.
    • Distribution of collected royalties.
  • High cost of events:
    • In particular, license fees at newcomer gigs are often higher than earnings.
    • Upcoming are heavily increased rates at the expense of new acts and event managers.
  • Unbalanced payment of royalties leading to disproportionate shares of GEMA members.
  • “GEMA assumption”:

“Because of the large and comprehensive repertoire GEMA manages, at performances of national and international dance and entertainment music there is an actual assumption militating in favour of the existence of a liability fee.”

  • Questionable behaviour in business
    • No reminder but instant filing of lawsuits.
    • Inadequate penalties.

Summing it up.

Key claim of the petition is: There is no need to get rid off GEMA. It’s got an important role to represent artists in billing licencees. But the basic structure has been lost and technology has changed. That’s why reformation must be carried out. Petitioners therefore demand for:

  • Simplification of license fee structure.
  • Scrutinisation of compatibility with constitutional, copyright, and registered society’s law.
  • Transparency of distribution key (relating to distribution of royalties).
  • Questioning the so-called “GEMA assumption”.

Think Twice. Look Three Times.

Unfortunately, the petition is not precise in its phrasing. Though, this very character is understandable. First, the issue is a complex one. Second, it is an inquiry of a concerned citizen. Monika Bestle is no lawyer. And the online platform for petitions is made for majority access. But, critics of the petition tend do ignore these facts.

Also, GEMA’s legal form is that of a registered society. It’s difficult to undertake any legal action if GEMA’s billing and interaction with its members is based upon rules set by members. Based on that, critics motivate GEMA’s members to change something about the current situation if they don’t agree upon it. Yet, this has to be questioned too because at a closer look there are different types of membership. Even more so, although it’s a society in form – business behaviour is that of a public and governmental organisation. It is not.

The Age of Attentiveness.

No matter what the outcome of the petition will be, it has to be celebrated for raising attention to the topic.

Just recently, I got to know what it means if you’re not following each and every update at TechDirt, ArsTechnica, Bob Lefsetz’s letter etc. My wife, eager as me regarding topics in music biz, talked to a colleague of hers. Now, my wife is working in court so there’s some relevance to the most beloved topics of you and me there as well. She told her colleague about Hadopi in France and copyright matters in Germany. Her colleague shrugged it off: “Come on, that’s just a marginal issue.”

Importance of Culture.

Right here, the petition shows: It is not marginal at all. It is an issue important to German culture. I couldn’t help thinking of Lessig’s Oral Argument following his petition in Eldred v. Ashcroft to the Supreme Court in 2002 (Lawrence Lessig, “Free Culture. The Nature and Future of Creativity.”, pp. 229). This has been on another level yet on a related issue. In “Free Culture” he questions if he had won if pointing out the foreseeable damage to American culture instead of approaching the case from his role as a law lecturer and professor.

This is the very advantage of Bestle’s petition. It is grass roots speaking. Monika Bestle, standing in for many others in Germany, is passionate about it. And the music industry is aware of it. As soon as the magic number of 50.000 votes had been reached, which is the threshold to allow for a public hearing, GEMA issued a press release [link broken, 2016-03-10].

The Empire Strikes Back.

GEMA thrives to point out misunderstandings in recent past – misunderstandings caused by others of course. They reference particular special rates – rates that are not always hinted at by their consultants who you almost coercively have to contact when calculating your cost in licence fees. Again, I’m trying to allow for some insight as to how inscrutable rates are within the companion to this article (upcoming).

Hope for a Tsunami.

So what are we up to now? Monika Bestle has at least 80.000 people on her side. That’s about four times the population of her hometown. The online petition will end on 17 July, which means there’s room to go.

We’ve got a cancelled Popkomm conference in Berlin. And there’s an enthusiastic movement of people from grass roots ready to work on replacing it by a less heavily industry but culture based event: “#unkomm” / “all2gethernow!”.

Germany just witnessed the most successful petition ever in German history, protesting against Internet bans [link broken, 2016-03-10]. The number of collected votes ended up at 134.015.

Most important is public attentiveness. Thanks to Monika Bestle, this has been achieved.


Speaking of attentiveness, I might add that in autumn there will be elections to the German Federal Parliament, to Bundestag. Nearly 80.000 votes in an online petition only means valuable votes in election campaigns.

[Please note: All stats and facts are taken from the book “GEMA, GVL & KSK – Die Praxishilfe für Musiker und Musikverwerter” by Lothar Scholz, 3rd ed., 2007.]

This text has been published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 Unported licence. If you would like to make use of the text or parts of it in a way that goes beyond the scope please get in touch with me.