Music royalties are the foot on the hosepipe of multimedia

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser Oct 1989 (guess) - scanned

After the whizzo multimedia presentations at Boston's Macworld, and our very own MacUser Show, Apple UK decided to bring us down to earth with some very practical day-to-day applications of multimedia. It showed a charming example of a school reading book which had been brought to life by publishing it in multimedia form. The screen shows the usual pictures and words but, much more importantly, the Macintosh speaks the words as well - either one at a time or as a complete sentence.

The teacher is freed from the need to sit with each child in turn while they learn the sound of each word. The children simply go to the teacher when they believe they understand the pages they've been told to learn. It seems to me to demonstrate a good use of computers in education. It also benefits both the children and the teachers.

This kind of idea could catch on very quickly and be implemented very easily and, on the face of it, very cheaply. All you need is a book, a scanner, MacRecorder or something similar, and someone who's a dab hand with HyperCard. Teachers have found that children respond best to children's voices, so the recordings can be done for nothing - it's some light relief for the kids. HyperCard isn't all that difficult to learn. And scanning a book is a piece of cake.

But there's a problem. You can't just go round scanning books and sticking them in computer systems. If an author expects to sell, say, a hundred books to a school, this could be reduced to just one. Unlike the photocopier, dissemination of books electronically consumes no extra materials - a bit of disk space and a small amount of electricity and that's it. This means the barriers to this kind of copyright breach are virtually non-existent.

Authors are not going to like it one little bit. However much they appreciate the need to give children a good education, they still need to earn money from their books, otherwise they'll stop writing them. Of course, publishers are the ones who'll have to decide what to do about this. Do they increase the price of the book to counteract this kind of copying? Do they grant licences to schools who want to base multimedia on their books? Or do they get into the multimedia business themselves? Once the Macintosh population in schools reaches a decent level, the last option would seem to be the best one. (I should make it clear that Apple's example was prepared with the full support of the book's publisher.)

Multimedia is a fine concept, but the copyright issue is probably the greatest barrier to its whole-hearted adoption. And it's not just a problem for schools. Look at products like the Guinness Disk of Records. This is a CD-ROM full of digitised photographs, animations, text and sound. Naturally enough, the copyright holders must receive an equitable reward for the use of their material.

Although the disk looks like (and is) a compact disc, its composition is much more like that of a book or a magazine. Unfortunately, the powers that be in the music industry find it difficult to come to terms with this. If you want to play even a tiny, but recognisable, fragment of music, they seek the same kind of royalties that they get with regular records, tapes and CDs.

The sum total is that you end up in the paradoxical situation where the customer is primarily interested in the textual and graphical information, yet the creators of the incidental music which plays a minimum part in the selling point of the product - get the lion's share of the royalties. This seems a shade unbalanced to me.

The makers of the Guinness disk overcame this problem by getting their 25 minutes of audio specially written and performed, rather than meet the demands of the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS). This organisation asks for 6.25% of the retail price of the disk to be distributed among the copyright holders of the audio material. The return is based on the value of the disk as a whole, not just the musical proportion on the disk. This is plainly inequitable.

The multimedia dream is that we will be able to bolt together compilations of whatever material we like. The reality appears to be that we will be constrained from doing so by the narrow vision of copyright holders or their representatives. Perhaps this is why all the major moves in this area are coming from companies like Warner, Pergamon and the BBC. They, and others like them, hold the copyright on masses of information which they can now raid from their archives for their multimedia products, meaning they have a head start in the market.

The final copyright question springs from your personal use of multimedia techniques. At what point do you, the individual, break the copyright law? Like tape recording records for playing in the car, the chance of getting caught is slim indeed. And the likelihood of a prosecution is even slimmer.

My guess is that anyone who pinches images, sounds or text from an existing multimedia product for their own use need not have a guilty conscience. But copyright holders have every right to demand royalties from those who secure a pecuniary advantage from this activity, whether for themselves or for someone else.

If the multimedia idea is to reach its full potential, something will have to be done about giving copyright holders a fair, but not excessive, return for the use of their work. And although we, the end-users, cannot solve the problem directly, we can at least initiate this necessary debate.