The YouTube - PRS dispute is, let's be clear, about the level of royalty paid by the video host to the royalties agency. That is all it as about. YouTube place one value on a play of a video; PRS believe it's something different.
You might not guess that from watching the PRS "Fair Play For Creators" site, where songwriters are given the chance to put their case directly, and have a bit of a moan about Google:
Just remove advertising from the 'offending' pages. These pages would earn no money...Google ARE becoming evil.
Roy Williams (Nervous Records), PRS for Music publisher - 24 March 2009
Roy seems to be referring to Google AdWords appearing on sites which allegedly host unlicensed music - a talking point that seems to have bubbled up from nowhere in the last couple of days. And, yes, although he might have completely oversimplified the idea (you can tell an offending page, presumably, by the tiny Skull and Crossbones in the address bar) it's not a bad demand. And one that Google complies with, when sites breaching its AdWrods terms and conditions are reported.
And, much more importantly, one which has nothing to do with the YouTube-PRS skirmish.
PRS for Music exists to ensure songwriters and composers are paid their rightful reward for the music they create. It is not a commercial organisation, but a not-for-profit collective of songwriters, composers and publishers. Google is a big commercial entity which must properly pay the very people who make the YouTube service a success.
Jools Holland, (Broadcaster - Squeeze), PRS for Music songwriter - 24 March 2009
Well, yes, Google is a big commercial entity. That's hardly relevant, though, is it? If someone was booked to go on the Late Show's Later With Jools Holland and demanded a fee based on the number of hits the BBC News website gets worldwide, rather than the audience the specific programme on BBC 2 gets, you might wonder if your guest had lost control of their faculties.
YouTube, financially, isn't a success; it's doing alright, but not printing cash when you take into account its scale. And the company does want to pay, the dispute is over what a fair rate is.
And why is it significant that PRS is "not for profit"? Sure, it makes it sound a little like a charity, which it isn't, and it's lovely that PRS only creams off a little over one pound out of every ten to pay for its administration, and luxury central London offices, and expensive rebranding operations, and campaigning websites. But "PRS is not for profit and Google makes a profit" is hardly a convincing argument, and until PRS starts to campaign for EMI to be nationalised, we're chalking that one up to attempts to disguise the row as being about 'how much money'?
Abba are angry, too:
I get cross when internet companies paint the picture of a faceless and immensely powerful 'intellectual property industry' as their main enemy just because it suits them. Those under attack are people of flesh and blood, who are passionate about their profession. When I speak with younger colleagues about their current situation I feel a strong sense of compassion for them and I understand their anxiety about the future. Some of them feel that their work is being degraded. There are those crusaders for the right to share files who say: 'Why don't they go on tour and sing for their supper'. This argument shows a staggering ignorance of the fact that so many of the people who write the songs have more often than not never been in contact with artist life. They are producers and songwriters, full stop.
Björn Ulvaeus (Abba), songwriter - 24 March 2009
Well, yes... when, exactly did Google or YouTube characterise the PRS as part of the "intellectual property industry" (even although, of course, that's exactly the industry that PRS is in, even if Abba aren't.)
Bjorn is right, of course: there's less money about for songwriters. But isn't that a structural thing, a side-effect of music going from being scarce and distributed through very limited, tightly controlled channels to being not-scarce, and distributed through an unlimited range of outlets beyond anyone's control? Yes, it's terrible that that makes music - in a strict financial sense - less valuable than it was. But why would you conclude that YouTube has a moral duty to recompense on the basis of the 1989 music industry model instead of the 2009 one?
It becomes increasingly obvious that this is the problem facing YouTube: songwriters and musicians are selling a product whose financial price has tanked, and need someone to blame. It's unfortunate they're blaming one of the few companies which seems to genuinely be interested in trying to help them extract as much value as possible from their songs.
Pete Waterman, at least, does put some figures into his argument:
YouTube is not alone in the online hall of shame where the worthy notion of greater consumer choice is used as a cloak to disguise the fact that copyright infringement happens on a grand scale.
I co-wrote 'Never Gonna Give You Up', which Rick Astley performed in the eighties, and which must have been played more than 100 million times on YouTube - owner Google. My PRS for Music income in the year ended September 2008 was £11.
Music videos and music generally is at the very heart of User Generated Content sites. It is the hard work and creative endeavour of songwriters and musicians everywhere that has been the bedrock upon which many of these websites have been built, creating along the way huge value for their owners. As well as arguing with them over royalty rates, we should be fighting them to get proper recognition for the part we've played in building their businesses.
Pete Waterman, (co-writer 'Never Gonna Give You Up'), PRS for Music songwriter - 24 March 2009
Ignore the first paragraph, which has nothing whatsoever to do with trying to agree a royalty rate with a specific company - it's like BAT insisting that Tesco pay more, wholesale, for fags, to make good its losses when people flog knock-off tabs - and instead, let's look at his figures.
He's done a lot of smudging, of course - he doesn't quite say what period the payment actually covers (was it before Rickrolling really took off?), and his claim of "more than 100 million times" seems a bit unlikely - as of now, the two most popular versions of the video on YouTube have hit about 35 million between them, so "more than 100 million" by the end of September might be a bit of an inflation.
Let's also remember that YouTube counts starts of the play, not full play, and given that Rickrolling was a gotcha moment, it's probably that most of those plays were by people who didn't really want to see the song and would have only heard the first few seconds before pulling a wry grin and clicking elsewhere.
And there's three songwriters for the track. So that does treble the amount to £33, plus ten per cent which went to PRS to pay for its staplers and staff, so that's £36. Not a massive amount.
To be fair, Waterman does concede that the use of Astley on YouTube in this way generated massive mainstream media coverage, and lots of events using the tune as well, bringing with it much more substantial PRS earnings that, but for YouTube, he would never have seen. Oh... hang on, he doesn't, does he?
Still, £36 for millions of views. Is that much?
Consider this: Radio One pays £18 per minute for music paid on its most popular programmes. So, two plays of a three minute song on Chris Moyles show, with an audience of 7.5 million, equates to £108 for the equivalent of 15 million single plays; ten per cent off for PRS comes to about £98; between three people, that's a little over £33 for Pete from 15 million "views". Three times as much as he earned from YouTube, perhaps. But again: not an enormous sum of money.
Also: didn't the payment of which Waterman is complaining come through an agreement negotiated by the PRS in the first place?
It's great that songwriters are joining the debate. But all the while they're blaming Google for the world having changed, it's not really going to get us very much further, is it?