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Blondie—shaping the landscape of music from CBGB to the DMCA

Debbie Harry
Debbie Harry of Blondie performs during the Bringing Human Rights Home concert on February 5, 2014 in Brooklyn, New York. Debbie Harry has been a vocal supporter of changes in copyright protections for artists in the United States and the European Union.

It’s crazy to think that there was once a world before music technology as we know it. But long before there was iTunes and iPods, there were portable CD players and the Sony Walkman.

I remember my first Walkman. My Dad bought it for me for my birthday one year. It was somewhere between the ages of 11 and 13, I just can’t remember exactly. I was so excited! He admitted to me that he didn’t know what kind of music I really liked, so he picked something out that he thought I would enjoy. Dad picked this specific cassette to teach me that women in music—and in life—could rock, and rock hard, if not harder than any man out there.

My first cassette for my Walkman…a dual-sided tape of Blondie and Pat Benatar’s greatest hits. I played that tape and I rocked out to that tape, until the Walkman ate that tape.

I’m fairly certain you’re asking yourself what pre-teen me, a Walkman, and a Blondie/Pat Benatar cassette tape have to do with anything in the legal world. I was asking myself the same thing when I took on this post.

July is International Blondie/Deborah Harry Month. Blondie, and their lead singer Deborah (Debbie) Harry, were international music icons in the 1970s and 1980s—a time where music was produced on vinyl, CDs, 8-tracks, or cassettes. There was no YouTube, no Google, and no Facebook.

So what does any of this have to do with law? Turns out, it has a whole lot to do with copyright law.

In 1998, President Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) into law. This law was created in response to the growth of the internet and its users distributing “pirated” works of music artists through various means (think along the lines of Napster, LimeWire, BitTorrent, or Pirate Bay). While it protected artists and their works, there were loopholes built into the law.

One of these loopholes, known as the “Safe Harbor Provision,” allowed for works to be copied and distributed, without payment to the artists, if the work was on a website that contained a DMCA provision. The artists were then forced to issue individual take-down notices for every time their works were uploaded.

With websites like MySpace (even if we’re all on Facebook now), YouTube, and Facebook, can you imagine how many times Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus would have to issue take down notices for every use “Old Town Road?” (Here, take a minute to do some imagining.)

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OK, but let’s get back to Blondie. One of their biggest hits was “Heart of Glass.” If you do a Google search for it under videos, you’ll have 337,000 hits returned. But only ONE of those is the official video posted by Blondie. So, Blondie would have had to have issued 336,999 take-down notices; seemingly impossible.

In 2016, Debbie Harry penned an op-ed article for The Guardian in favor of changing the DMCA laws to favor artists and provide them the royalties they deserved for their music being distributed on Safe Harbor websites. She noted how artists are not getting paid for their works, even though they are played and distributed hundreds, even thousands, of times. And she wasn’t alone. Katy Perry and Billy Joel voiced their feelings on the need for the DMCA to change, as did Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe.

Congress, the Senate, and President Trump listened.

In 2018, Republic Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia introduced the Music Modernization Act to Congress, while Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah introduced it to the Senate. In October of the same year, President Trump signed the act into law.

So, what exactly did this law do? It helped give more to the artists.

Music providers like YouTube, Pandora and Spotify started paying more for each play of a song. For example, YouTube was paying an artist $0.00134 per play of their music before the Music Modernization Act was signed. After signing, YouTube started paying $0.01682 per play.

Here’s a comparison of the fees paid on each service before and after the act’s signing:

2017 Payment 2019 Payment    
Pandora $0.00134 $0.01682
YouTube $0.0006 $0.00069
Napster $0.01682 $0.019
Apple Music $0.0064 $0.00735
Google Play $0.0059 $0.00676
Spotify $0.0038 $0.00437
Amazon $0.0074 $0.00402

Did you know that if someone recorded a song prior to February 15, 1972, they weren’t protected by federal copyright law? This too changed with the signing of the Music Modernization Act to where songs recorded prior to that 1972 date are protected until that same date in 2067. Anything prior to 1923 is now protected until January 2022, before it’s released into the public domain.

But wait, there’s more. For the first time producers are protected by federal copyright. Congress established the SoundExchange to distribute royalties on sound recordings and, in doing so, created a provision where a part of the royalties collected are distributed to “a producer, mixer, or sound designer who was part of the creative process that created the sound recording.”

So, going back to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” not only does the band get royalties from the playing of the song, but their producer, Mike Chapman, does too!

Debbie Harry didn’t stop there. While she had addressed the lack of protections afforded by the United States, the European Union had their own lack of protections. Harry again wrote an op-ed piece. But this time, instead of focusing on the United States and DMCA, she focused on Article 13 of a proposed copyright directive. This Article would limit what was known as the “value gap” between how much providers were making on copyrighted content and how much was being paid to the artists as royalties—almost the same thing that the Music Modernization Act helped to fix in the States.

And guess what? The European Union listened. The new copyright directive, along with Article 13 (which was renumbered to Article 17 after updates), passed in March 2019.

My dad was right by picking Blondie to be one of the first things I listened to on that Walkman. Blondie and Debbie Harry taught me when I was young that women could rock—and rock hard. Because 40-plus years later, both Blondie and Debbie Harry are rocking, rocking hard, and fighting for the rights of artists everywhere.

Happy International Blondie/Debbie Harry Month everyone!

Jessica Gilgor Jessica Gilgor is a 3L at Creighton University School of Law. A native of Las Vegas, she graduated from the University of Nevada Reno, where she studied Professional Chemistry and minored in Physics. Jessica was a part-time sports journalist for the United States Bowling Congress during their Open Championships tournament under the tutelage of Matt Cannizzaro and Aaron Smith.