Global Observer

Germany: When copyright kills the music

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BERLIN -- As the intellectual property debate rages on, Berlin's club scene finds itself caught in the crosshairs.

BERLIN – The German capital’s club scene wasn’t always legendary.

What emerged from the war-torn, walled-up, walled-down, economically-depressed city in the early 90s was a chance to create a world driven by heart rather than obligation.

Blue-collar, studying or unemployed by day, young Berliners began gathering in freshly abandoned buildings in the former East by night to spin and dance, free from the realities of economic limbo. Electronic music became a language fueled by escapism, animated by both a painful past and surrender to the present.

Despite two decades of relative isolation, discount airlines and word-of-mouth have since turned Berlin’s network of once-illegal clubs into a multi-million dollar industry. The most recent study by the city’s Senate Committee for the Economy reported some 170 million EUR (213.7 million USD) in revenue in 2008 – a number experts say has indubitably skyrocketed in the past four years.

And with 35 percent of all Berlin tourists naming nightlife as the reason for their visit according to Tip magazine, it’s clear that the enigmatic trade is energizing other sectors of the city’s industry-thin economy too.

But the global debate surrounding intellectual property rights has stirred up conflict between copyright proponents and Berlin’s typically-discrete club scene, with several of the city’s most (in)famous clubs asserting a newly-proposed increase in fees will force them out of business.

Germany’s largest collective rights management group GEMA had been imbrued in conflict with YouTube for months over the video site’s hosting of copyrighted content in Germany – a battle GEMA won in April. Now a blanket increase in fees levied on clubs playing recorded music – regardless of the origin – has been announced.

“Based on our membership reach and connection to similar organizations in the US, we can assume that clubs are playing music for which we possess the rights,” GEMA press representative Peter Hempel told SmartPlanet.

Representatives of Berlin’s club scene say they take exception to GEMA’s assumption that the vast majority of the scene’s music falls under the rights management group’s jurisdiction. Worse, they say, is that GEMA’s structure allots more than half of its revenue to some 5 percent of its top-earning members.

“The money Berlin clubs pay never gets back anyone in the scene here,” Lutz Leichsenring of the Berlin-based ClubCommission told SmartPlanet. “It goes to some people who do popular folk songs or film music.”

City politicians have begun voicing their concern about the situation with respect to the industry’s economic clout. Björn Böhning, Head of Berlin’s Senate Chancellery, wrote a letter to GEMA, as reported by the FAZ: “[Berlin’s club] scene is an element of the musical sector of the creative economy, which this senate supports.”

The senate’s speaker Bernhard Schodrowski echoed Böhning: “If word gets around that Berlin’s not worth the trip anymore because the club culture is dying out, that’s not good.”

Böhning complimented the efforts of the German group associated with the country’s annual Karneval celebrations for reaching an agreement with GEMA Tuesday, citing the solution as a possible model for the Berlin’s club scene.

While Leichsenring says he’s happy the group could work out terms for its situation, he said the ClubCommission and its members will have to continue negotiating separately to keep its scene alive.

“We’re hoping that GEMA will agree to solutions such as blackboxing,” he said, referring to technology that registers the playlist of DJs so exact calculations can be made regarding what music was played when – and who it belongs to.

Protests against the GEMA reforms in Berlin at the end of June rekindled conversations surrounding ACTA (Europe’s version of SOPA) and the definition of intellectual property rights in the digital age.

As more artists (and other “intellectual authors”) publish digitally, without the help of record companies or publishing houses, the role of organizations such as GEMA seem to become increasingly ambiguous. And as an industry outlier, Berlin’s club scene seems caught at the center of just these kinds of transitional questions.

“Of course we don’t want the scene to change,” Leichsenring said of the impending levies. “If the scene changes itself, that’s fine. But if GEMA changes it, that’s just not right.”

PHOTO: Berghain (Flickr/Zeitfixierer)

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure