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Fear not: The future of pop music is in Congress’s hands

Katy Perry, Sam Smith and Lucian Grainge, chairman and CEO of UMG Worldwide, attend a Grammy after party  Sunday, Feb 8 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Alexandra Wyman/Invision for Universal Music Group/AP Images)

At an event with members of the music industry this weekend in Los Angeles, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked entertainment lawyers and others in attendance to write the names of their musical clients on the back of their business cards and leave them with his legislative director.

Nadler, a member of the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, is hoping to enlist some of these clients in a campaign to overhaul the nation's royalty rates and update a copyright law that was written in the 1970s, long before members of Congress could have dreamed of Spotify.

The issue got a shoutout at the Grammys on Sunday from Jennifer Hudson and National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences President Neil Portnow, who announced Creators Alliance. The group, with support from artists such as Steven Tyler, Alicia Keys and Adam Levine, will lobby for artist pay.

"There's a developing urgency and it's getting greater and greater," Nadler said.

Digital music sales and online streaming haven't made up for the revenue the industry has lost from nosediving physical sales, and many are turning to Congress for a fix. U.S. law dictates some aspects of how musicians are paid, including a rule allowing songwriters (but not singers) to be paid when their work is played on terrestrial radio. While big-name stars can thrive off touring revenue, endorsement deals and televised gigs, music's middle class is getting squeezed.

"People can't make a living at this ridiculous reimbursement rate," Nadler said. Popular music's future depends on talented young musicians, and "they need to be able to make a living to continue to do what they're doing."

But if (or perhaps because) pop's copyright dilemma is in Congress's hands, don't expect a quick fix.

"I don't know what the politics are, but I don't see a wholesale revision," said Chris Sprigman, a professor of law at New York University.

Sprigman represents Fernando Sosa, the artist who created the 3D printed model of "Left Shark" from Katy Perry's Super Bowl halftime show that Perry's lawyers say violates her copyright. In a letter responding to Perry's attorneys, Sprigman calls their legal merits "weak," because of the the lack of evidence that Perry actually created "Left Shark" -- both the meme and the suit -- and costumes are generally not copyrightable.

"Katy Perry didn't make 'Left Shark,' the Internet made "Left Shark," he said.

It's the latest in a string of pop stars arguing that fan-made products sold online violate their intellectual property or copyright. Last month, attorneys for Beyoncé asked a seller on the craft site Etsy to pull a mug that read "Feyonce," and attorneys for Taylor Swift did the same for Etsy products that used her song lyrics.

"I do think what you're seeing is a lot of tension in a set of creative agencies that are changing," Sprigman said. "What you're seeing is, I think, experiments. People are testing the boundaries of what can be owned and used."

Record companies have signaled they're okay with fans using musicians' copyrighted work if there's compensation. YouTube, for example, allows songwriters to be paid for covers of their work uploaded to the site, which is why you see someone like Taylor Swift, who doesn't want fans selling candles that say "Darling, I'm a nightmare dressed as a daydream," tweeting out a link to a fan-made mash-up video of "Style" and "Blank Space."

"YouTube did step up," said Jay Cooper, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer. But, he said, "for every YouTube, there's hundreds of others out there that don't."

Sprigman, the "Left Shark" attorney, said he thinks the ideal copyright law for the 21st century would be "radically simpler," including freeing non-commercial uses.

"It's much easier to copy than it used to be," he said. "As we move forward, people are beginning to realize copyright is an ineffective tool."