9-Dec-2003 (Tue) Wherein I hack hardware and don't make a complete mess of it!

In case you were looking for more reasons to hate ASCAP, there's this article about Skip's Tavern here in San Francisco. It's a bar that has live music, with bands who play only original songs. ASCAP came to them and said, "you have bands, and so they must be playing songs on which ASCAP controls the copyright! Pay us $800/year." The bar owner asked for evidence that there was any copyright infringement; in response, ASCAP sued him. They were unwilling to negotiate, so in response, he's no longer doing live music at all.

Speaking of live music, if you've ever watched our RealVideo webcasts while a band was on stage, you probably noticed that audio and video were at least ten seconds out of sync. I think I've fixed that, but I won't know for sure until the next time there's someone performing on stage (which looks like it's going to be a while.)

The webcasting setup we have is pretty convoluted, and I just made it even more convoluted to fix this. The goal is to webcast the main room when we're open (in both MP3 and Real) and webcast our archives when we're closed. That's simple enough for the MP3 streams: I just have the input source to the Icecast server change based on a timer. But getting those archived MP3s into the Real stream was trickier.

The way it used to work is that the MP3 encoder machine did two things:

  • stream MP3s from either live audio or the archives;
  • play analog audio of whatever is currently being streamed out its sound card.

Then the RealEncoder machine had its soundcard input coming from the soundcard output on the MP3 machine. That made the two always be in sync, at the expense of another decode/encode step (but that doesn't matter much, because RealAudio is way lower quality than MP3 anyway.) The only problem was that all that encoding/decoding introduced a big delay.

So the change I made was to introduce a switch: when we're open, the RealEncoder machine gets its audio directly from the main room; and when we're closed, it gets it from the MP3 machine. This switch is a pair of ST-SSR1 relays. I wired up their control lines to a pin on a parallel port, and the decision of when to switch from A to B is made by the MP3 machine (since that machine already knows when we're open, since it already had to decide whether to play live or archived.) The scripts that start and stop the live audio and archives now also run a little program that turns the appropriate pin on the parallel port on or off.

It seems to be working, but I had to tweak the volume levels in three different places, so I'm not sure it's all completely in sync; I think it's a little quieter than it used to be overall.

36 Responses:

  1. loosechanj says:

    I guess there really is a first time for everything

  2. jck says:

    jwz messing with computers and not having a completely horrible time of it? Time to call your loved ones, everybody, for truly, these are the end times.

    • jwz says:

      Oh, it was still pretty horrible -- it took me almost an hour to figure out how to enable the parallel port. And a drive went bad in the meantime. But that's close enough to "working on the first try" that I, for one, am shocked.

  3. digitalgoth says:

    In reference to your post about ASCAP on the DNA Lounge journal:

    I actually posted much the same link on my journal a while back. And am dealing with ASCAP at the coffeeshop I run as well. If you have some spare time at some point in the future, I'd like to get some advice from you.

    My journal post about ASCAP problems.


    • jwz says:

      At this point, you have to pay them.

      Maybe you could get away with not paying them if you never again play music out loud, but that'd be the only way (and that will only work if they're feeling generous.)

      If you try to say "we only play non-ASCAP music", they will sue you.

      Maybe you will win in court -- but probably not, and it will be very expensive for you to find out.

      If you try to fight them on this, they will bankrupt you, because they have all the time and money in the world, and you can't afford to stay in the fight as long as they can.

      This sucks, but it's the world in which we live.

      • digitalgoth says:

        I don't intend to fight them in court. ;) I'm not that stupid, or rich.

        I'm simply wondering if there is any way that we can play music of -any- sort without having to pay them. Webcast, radio, anything?


        • jwz says:

          No, there is no way.

          (Well, unless you consider "hope you don't get caught" to be a way.)

          They want you to pay them even if you merely have the radio on. Their policy is "if you are playing music, you must pay us. If you say you only play non-ASCAP music, then you are lying and we will sue you."

          • digitalgoth says:

            I was afriad that might be the case. We're currently waiting for them to come back in and recount the seating capacity of the place. (They currently have it in their heads that we have seating for 40... We've got seating for 17. Total. One bathroom... Firecode says so.) Once they revamp their estimate of how many people listen to music at our shop, we're likely to simply capitulate.


          • lars_larsen says:

            I may be wrong, but ASCAP pays songwriters right? If you played only instrumental music there would be no lyrics, and thus nobody to pay right?

            I realize they'll sue you if you try to make this excuse. But it is a valid excuse right? Assuming you had a room full of foaming at the mouth lawyers like they do.

            ASCAP pays the songwriters directly based on the usage of their music right? So they would need to know exactly what you are playing and how often in order to pay them right? So if you payed them even though you had no ASCAP music, what would they do with the money? Isn't that fraud?

            • jwz says:

              I don't know the answer about instrumental music.

              But I do know that ASCAP does not collect playlists from their "licensees". They pay out the money statistically, based on, e.g., the Billboard charts.

              BMI collects statistics, at least to some extent. Not sure about SESAC.

              (For those of you reading who might not know who these folks are, I described it in my webcasting article.)

              • lars_larsen says:

                I'm so glad I don't own a nightclub. I don't know how you do it.

              • niban says:

                a sound recording is the 'property' of ASCAP regardless of the content. If you are a south american guitar player, a poet, a spoon player, or someone who hums in the shower. who makes a recording of whatever you do, and that recording gets put on any media for any reason, period. if that media is traded, consumed, or released by any means and you happen to be on the receiving end of whatever mechanism is in place to disseminate this, and you take that recording into any public venue and broadcast that recording for any reason, ASCAP wants their cut.
                ASCAP will never actually cut a check to you. They cut a check to the labels, who in turn are supposed to pass a portion of that money on to you.
                SESAC is the same, although they do compile statistics, the results of those numbers compiled are reserved for the more lucrative 'artists'
                BMI does compile the numbers and pays you the, copyright holder, a fee based on the nature, duration, and plays of your recording. (every once in a while i get a check from BMI for $0.89, or $3.52 or whatever because some entity out there, usually MTV according to the accounting statement that is sent with the check, played a song i was involved with for 17 seconds without lyrics. If they played it with lyrics i get more money.

                Funnily enough ASCAP will even go after you if you play music that has lapsed into the 'public domain' category and that they have no jurisdiction over according to copyright law. their logic is that you are not savy enough to troll through the library of congress and find recordings that are public domain and request a copy from them directly(this is very time consuming). ASCAP acknowledges that yes the tune public domain, but you had to purchase, bartyr, or trade with an entity that ASCAP has an affiliation with (retailer, label, publishing entity, distribution house, etc.) and they want their money so that they can protect these poor people.

                like the insurance industry, the music industry is legal thuggery. i would rather do business with tony soprano than any of these fucks. at least with tony i would get dinner and kiss before i got whacked.

                • lars_larsen says:

                  WOW, that is exactly what I was afraid of. Thanks for clearing that up.

                  • niban says:

                    you are welcome, i learned the hard way by trying to pay rent off of money I made in music.

                    now i do not claim to be an expert. i can only speak from my own experience and experiences of friends of mine who are musicians, business owners, writers, composers, engineers, or producers. things change, but to date they have not changed too drastically from the tin pan alley days.

                  • lars_larsen says:

                    You know better than I do at least, thats good enough for me.

            • otterley says:

              I may be wrong, but ASCAP pays songwriters right? If you played only instrumental music there would be no lyrics, and thus nobody to pay right?

              On the contrary, there's no difference. Instrumental music is most certainly written by people one would call "authors," and yes, ASCAP pays them.

              In commercial music, the composers of the music and the lyrics are often two (or more) different people, all of whom are individually paid for their contributions.

              • lars_larsen says:

                You're probably right. Now that I think about it I know someone who writes commercial jingles, and gets paid by ASCAP.

                This is where I got that crazy idea:

                "Radio stations have historically been required to pay per-song royalties to songwriters but not performers, recording companies, and anyone else who own the rights to the "sound recording" of a song."

                If you had a live jazz band playing, there is no written music, and therefore no songwriter. Apparently that is still no excuse. Sounds like they make the rules up as they go along, and if you don't like it you can suck on their massive litigious cock.

                • otterley says:

                  If you had a live jazz band playing, there is no written music, and therefore no songwriter.

                  It depends on what the band is playing. If the band is playing a song copyrighted by ASCAP, then ASCAP is owed royalties. If the band is strictly improvising upon its own material or material whose copyright is not assigned to ASCAP, then ASCAP is owed nothing.

          • vsync says:

            Didn't that rider to the Sonny Bono Mickey Mouse Profit Protection Act specify explicitly that you can indeed play the radio if your establishment is smaller than some number of square feet?

            And isn't this barratry?

      • otterley says:

        If you try to fight them on this, they will bankrupt you

        That's not necessarily true. Judges really don't like it very much when they determine that plaintiffs are trying to use the court system to extort defendants.

        In return, defendants can file malicious prosecution suits when they believe the original suits are being filed strictly for harrassment.

        The fact is, ASCAP is making a bet that the defendants will cave, because they always do.

        If the defendant doesn't cave, and there is no or little convincing evidence that copyrights are being infringed, then ASCAP has a lot to lose. This is much more likely to happen with a jury trial, because juries don't like little guys being targeted by big guys for the sins of the many--particularly if they're sins that nobody cares about.

        • jwz says:

          And how long before you actually get in front of a judge? How much money in legal fees? How many months of trying to keep your business afloat after ASCAP has permanently torpedoed your credit rating via collection agencies?

          This is why the protection racket works: when you take into account how long they can make this drag out, and all the misery they can cause you, paying their $900 bribe starts to look like a bargain.

          • otterley says:


            Oh, I totally agree.

            The alternative is the English system, whereby the loser in a suit pays the winner's costs.

            But that has a downside too, because a poor plaintiff with a good and just case against a rich defendant will be hesitant to pursue the case, fearing he'll have to pay the rich defendant's exorbitant costs.

            The only good solution is litigation insurance, but right now it's not something the Average Joe considers purchasing.

    • kdarr says:

      Does BMI charge a yearly fee/shakedown to clubs and "broadcast" facilities as well? If so what are their rates like in comparison to ASCAP?

      What about Muzak? Isn't that bought outright by the business that's using it?


      • digitalgoth says:

        BMI charges a fee as well. And no, Muzak is not owned by the business if the artist that performed it is a member of ASCAP.

        To my knowledge at least. If there is a way to be able to play -anything- musical in a restaurant or cafe without paying ASCAP, I'd love to hear about it.


        • rasp_utin says:

          If there is a way to be able to play -anything- musical in a restaurant or cafe without paying ASCAP, I'd love to hear about it.

          What if an experimental musician not associated with ASCAP, BMI, etc. built a performance art installation at a cafe that acted as a random note/tone generator?

          For something more a tad more coherent/"musical," Sonic Foundry et al. have made writing music for commercials, etc. nearly automatic with a slew of professional loop and sample source cds. Once you purchase a disc [they can be expensive, but not compared to ASCAP fines!], you are allowed to use the loops in your own compositions, royalty-free. Taking these loops, you could set up a computer to run a cheap or free sequencing program-- hell, even a looping Flash file, I've seen demos and full tutorials online re: how to build it-- that randomly fades the loops in and out over one another while keeping them all in sync... instant, ever-changing music.

          I could be wrong on scenario #2, but it sounds right to me.

          • jwz says:

            The whole "but what if..." line of thought is tempting but futile.

            Even if all you play in your store is CDs stamped "public domain", you're still going to get a bill from ASCAP, and their spy is going to swear up and down that they heard you playing "Billie Jean". That's exactly what happened to Skip's.

            This not logic, this is a protection racket. Try to find a loophole and they'll bust your kneecaps.

          • digitalgoth says:

            As JWZ stated, and as the article about Skip's Tavern illustrated, even if you are playing music that isn't covered by ASCAP, they'll sue you and call you a liar.

            I will have to look into the second thing though. Sounds like it might have potential, especially considering that we also provide free wireless at the cafe...


      • niban says:

        yes BMI charges a fee. i do not know what is in relation to ASCAP, or what the charge is for business'.

        but if you are an artist the cost/benifit is better than ASCAP.

        yes the cost of MUZAK incorporates the fees you need to pay, that is why it is so expensive.

        • kdarr says:

          Yeah, I agree with you about BMI. It seems to be more likely that you'll actually get paid SOMETHING if you're not a Top100 Billboard artist with BMI. Plus it's only a one-time signup fee, whereas ASCAP is yearly.

          I guess theoretically ASCAP pays better if you're P-Diddy or something, because they don't really pay the LABEL first, they pay the PUBLISHER first. And guys like that have their own publishing companies, natch. Not to mention all the mechanicals from selling umpteen million crap records.

          But I digress. This thread wasn't really about pros/cons of ASCAP vs. BMI, it was just about ASSCAP's use of heavy-handed lawsuit tactics.

          Between these guys and the RIAA, it's a wonder I even try to be a musician.


  4. brad says:

    Did my advice help at all, or had you figured that all out already?

  5. bitwise says:

    I love the bit in the article about Skip's Tavern where the writer asserts that if you don't enforce your copyright, you lose the ability to do so. It's bullshit, but conveniently leads to "See, the law forces us to carve out your kidneys in a back alley. We're really nice guys, but what choice do we have? It's the law..."

    • otterley says:

      It's certainly true of trademarks - perhaps the author had them confused.

      • jwz says:

        The author fucking well shouldn't be writing about IP issues if they don't know the difference between copyright and trademark.

        It's not true of trademarks anyway, or so Cory says. E.g., he claims that non-commercial uses are never infringing.

        • otterley says:

          I was referring to abandonment -- non-commercial use of a trademark is a different story.

        • bitwise says:

          It's not true of trademarks in the sense that a reasonable person, having read the actual laws and cases, would conclude that it's not necessary to stomp everyone who innocently uses a trademarked term.

          It is true of trademarks in the sense that that's the justification companies use to intimidate people, and it's not a complete fantasy, because there's actual case law about trademarks becoming generic through widespread generic use.