x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Who pays the composer?

Behind the region's booming digital music industry loom questions about how composers will get paid.

Music to the ears: Sana Hassan checks out music CDs at the booth of Getmo Arabia during the recent Gitex technology week held in Dubai.
Music to the ears: Sana Hassan checks out music CDs at the booth of Getmo Arabia during the recent Gitex technology week held in Dubai.

Music in the Middle East is moving a mile a minute, as telecommunications companies look at becoming content creators while media companies sign deals with phone makers to package songs with mobiles. But behind all the commotion loom unanswered structural questions about how the composers who wrote a hot download will get paid.

In most countries, music publishing royalties are collected by a performing rights organisation, an independent entity that acts as an intermediary between copyright holders and those who want to use the rights. But the movement to set up such an organisation in the UAE has been having trouble getting off the ground, even as recognised brands such as Bertelsmann and Nokia have announced deals to sell downloaded music legally in the region.

"I don't think it is moving at the speed that we would like it to move," said Mohammed Almulla, the executive director of Dubai Media City. "I don't think the market is willing to accept it at this stage." Mr Almulla has been part of the effort to establish a performing rights organisation in the UAE, but said his efforts can only go so far. Dubai Media City does not license radio stations, for example, "so that even makes it more difficult for us to lead an initiative".

Hussain Yoosuf, the managing director of Fairwood/BKP Music in Dubai, said he appreciated Mr Almulla's efforts but disagreed with his assessment of the market's readiness. His company signed a sub-publishing agreement with Universal Music Publishing Group, one of the world's largest music publishers, in August, and he has been campaigning for the establishment of a performing rights organisation to help his company collect publishing royalties for its clients.

"There are lots of discussions happening," he said. "There is a movement happening. It's just a question of which way does it go." He believes recent developments in the region's media scene add urgency to the cause. These include the launch of Getmo Arabia last spring - a digital download service jointly run by Avarto Middle East Sales, a subsidiary of Bertelsmann, and the Abu Dhabi Media Company, the publisher and owner of The National - and Nokia's recently revealed plans to release a legal music download service in the Middle East.

"It is one thing for a tin-pot digital retailer to be a pirate website, but I think it's safe to say that names like Nokia and Bertelsmann wouldn't ever want to be associated with the idea that they aren't paying songwriters, or worse, to put themselves at risk of legal action against them," Mr Yoosuf said. "I don't think any global brand would want that, and the truth is, it is afforded within the copyright act to pursue and protect your rights."

Claudius Boller, the vice president of business development for Getmo Arabia, said he had spoken to Mr Yoosuf about paying music publishing rights, but there was little he could do until the UAE sets up a performing rights organisation. "Today we are not paying because there is no instance that we can pay to, but for every download, we reserve an amount of money in an escrow account, so anytime somebody comes around, here's the money," he said. "It belongs to the composer. And once there is a consortium, we will pay this money out."

Etisalat finds itself in a similar quandary. The UAE's largest telecommunications company is planning to roll out an audio and video download service that will link users' mobile phones to their personal computers by January, according to Mohammed al Mulla, the director for digital media services at Etisalat, who is no relation to the Dubai Media City chief. "A huge library of content will be available," he said, adding that deals with content owners will be announced soon.

He said the company paid their commitment to rights owners, but that there was no official way to pay music publishing rights in the UAE yet. "The authorities are working on a law," he said. "Once it's ready, we will be obliged to work according to it." khagey@thenational.ae