ALL RIGHT, CAMPERS, all together now, on the count of three . . . don't sing! The American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers (ASCAP), in its unceasing vigilance to collect license fees for its copyrighted songs, has set 8-year-old Brownies and other campers across America on notice: If your camp hasn't paid up, zip up. Camps that disobey -- that allow their charges to warble "Puff the Magic Dragon," say, or "This Land is Your Land" -- expose themselves to lawsuits, fines and even jail time, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal visited one all-volunteer day camp in California where campers were attempting to learn the Macarena line dance -- in silence.
Well, it's never too early to teach our children the wonders of the American tort system, but why stop with summer camp? All across America, children are gathering around dining room tables to sing "Happy Birthday," and getting off scot free. And how many families are driving back from vacations right now, singing "God Bless America" and other privately owned songs in their minivans, without paying one red cent? There oughta be a law!
Actually, there is a law, and it doesn't extend to those family birthday parties, at least not yet. But it does allow composers to demand royalty payments for any "public performance," and the law says that happens wherever "a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered." Still, Bob Schultz, public relations director for the American Camping Association, admits to some surprise when ASCAP came to his group last year and said, "We're getting ready to go after camps."
"When you focus on young people sitting around the campfire singing God Bless America' -- although it is protected by federal copyright law -- you have to question, is that really a public performance?" Mr. Shultz asks.
ASCAP said yes, so the American Camping Association, wanting to follow the law, negotiated a special rate on behalf of its 2,200 members -- $257 per camp. (About 500 have paid up.) Non-member camps pay more -- in some cases well more than $1,000 -- and ASCAP is just the beginning; other associations that own rights to other songs have said they're ready to go after summer camps, too, Mr. Schultz said. For an organization like the Fresh Air Fund, a nonprofit group that sends poor New York City children into the countryside, the money is significant; $250 covers the cost of a week's camp for one child.
Now, we yield to no one in our support for artists' right to reap rewards for their labors. We believe radio stations and even hotels and restaurants can pay for the music they play. But we also wonder whether some people in this country haven't lost a certain sense of proportion in the way they approach the world. "They buy paper, twine and glue for their crafts -- they can pay for the music, too . . . we will sue them if necessary," ASCAP's boss told the Journal.
In classic Washington response to a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place, some congressmen and senators will now line up to defend the summer camps; others will no doubt fall in to support ASCAP. Reams of papers will be generated, much money will be spent. ASCAP now says it never meant to target the Girl Scouts, but everyone else still appears to be on the list. Whatever happened to common sense?