A license to play kulintang musicBy Philip Dominguez Mercurio
With the way things are going, the answer could very well be yes.
I came to this realization in Berkeley where we own a restaurant. Along University Ave, it serves Indonesian food, has copies of Philippine News but something that we’ve been offering to patrons for a limited time is live kulintang music played by yours truly.
Now, I know what you are thinking. Kulintang music is an orchestral-type of music and shouldn’t be played solo but let me say this, being the only restaurant that has a kulintang in the States is pretty special. For our customers, many of them non-Filipinos, exposure to Filipino culture is something totally new and exciting.
Recently though our special offering of live music has attracted the attention of performance rights organizations such as Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). BMI called the restaurant informing us that in order to play live music, we needed a license from them.
According to BMI, all businesses that have live music are required to pay license fees to ensure that the songwriters and publishers they represent would get their compensation for income made from the playing of their music.
Now, I could understand that if our live music involved Western songs created by and performed by, for example the Beatles, who’d deserve their fair share of royalties from those who’d profit from their songs. However, in this case, this involves traditional music from the Philippines.
For background, this is a very ancient Filipino tradition, passed down orally from one generation to another. Copyright issues in this case should therefore be handled differently.
BMI didn’t think so of course. BMI was insistent that basically all music had some form of copyright and no matter what, to make sure we didn’t violate any of their copyrights, we had to purchase a license from them for $295. However insistent I was that this is ubiquitous form of music in some parts of the Philippines, BMI representatives would bring up the “Happy Birthday defense,” which basically states that even the “Happy Birthday” song -- ubiquitous in America -- is copyrighted and someone receives royalties for it.
Good for “Happy Birthday” but I’ll provide an argument why kulintang music doesn’t fit that paradigm.
First, as previously argued, kulintang music is an ancient tradition. Unlike “Happy Birthday,” there is no name to the exact originator of this music or its piece. This was a form of music created over centuries to become what it is today and no single person is entitled to be the soul creator of such and such a piece. BMI insisted that it doesn’t matter: as long as someone copyrights it first it’s basically finder’s keepers and loser’s weepers for those who didn’t copyright it first.
Secondly, unlike “Happy Birthday,” there isn’t just one version of kulintang pieces. For instance, for the kulintang composition, Duyug, there could be hundreds of different versions because what makes this music so special is the improvisations involved. Players, especially expert ones, could play different renditions every time and indeed they may never play the exact piece twice. For “Happy Birthday,” there may be new versions of it but everyone needs to sing the original song in order to be in unison. The fact that kulintang pieces are like an ever-evolving palette makes copyrighting such pieces next to impossible.
Thirdly, for the communities that play this music, it is seen as a public music, something to be shared with others, meaning close neighbors or musicians from other provinces. Who owned what copyright to what piece was a non-issue for them; being able to play competitively was the most important factor they were interested in.
Copyright laws have their purpose in music that has a legitimate songwriter/publisher, to protect songs he/she created from others using it without their permission. However, in this case of traditional Filipino music, copyrights seem almost absurd. What kulintang artist, who has been playing this traditional form of music for ages, must now pay royalties to someone who decides to copyright it? Add to that is the fact that there are so many versions of one piece with new ones created everyday, how would an artist know which version is copyrighted with BMI and which isn’t? BMI told me this situation is a Catch-22 -- but to be safe, we should purchase a license from them anyway.
Kulintang music knows no boundaries and artists freely went where they needed to go to create the music we know today. Copyrights however create boundaries, fencing in areas allowed for artist to roam. If indeed this is what its come down to, the essence of what made kulintang music great - the ability to improvise - could soon be dead.
And by the way if you think this is over, think again. On Thursday, Feb. 8, Sony called. They also want us to buy a license. - PDM
See this article,"A license to play kulintang music?" in Philippine News. Click here.