Opportunities of Resistance: Irish Traditional Music and the Irish Music Rights Organisation 1995-2000

This is the draft of an article that I published in 2012: “Opportunities of Resistance: Irish Traditional Music and the Irish Music Rights Organisation 1995-2000.” Popular Music and Society 35(5):651-681.


Legal sociologist Roger Cotterrell has noted that for those not personally committed in some way to the legal system, personal experience of the law often only arises when the law is felt to impact directly, positively or negatively, on the individual’s personal conditions of life (184). Legal power, I would suggest, becomes available for analysis in moments of resistance and conflict arising from prescriptive assertions and demands for obedience. As the work of scholars such as Kembrew McLeod have made clear, the unsettled and unsettling moments of personal encounter and participation in the contexts of “music and copyright” can serve as valuable diagnostic tools whereby the expansionary dynamics and political consequences of doctrine can be made visible. Moments of resistance and contestation can serve not only as clear invitations to analysis and critique, but also as clear invitations to possibilities of empowerment.

In this paper I outline a series of encounters of resistance and conflict relating to the political and economic expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) during the years 1995-2000, with particular emphasis on the domain of Irish traditional music. IMRO administers licences[i] for performing rights[ii] in Ireland. In their own words, “The Irish Music Rights Organisation is the national body charged with administering public performance rights in copyright music in Ireland on behalf of songwriters, composers, arrangers of public-domain works, and music publishers. IMRO’s function is to collect and distribute royalties arising from the public performance of copyright works.” Musical performing rights entitle the copyright owner of a work to receive a royalty whenever their musical work is performed in public or broadcast.

The Irish Music Rights Organisation achieved independence from the English Performing Right Society (PRS) in 1995. In the period that followed, IMRO representatives intensified their efforts to increase the number of licences contracted with the company. Expansion, as a consequence, was the most significant aspect of the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation during the period 1995-2000. A series of controversies resulted during the second half of the 1990s, allowing for an eruption of suspicion, if not paranoia, about IMRO’s operations. Representatives of IMRO encountered fierce resistance as certain groups refused to comply with the purported need for IMRO licences, in particular, primary schools, publicans, and, the main focus of this article, supporters of ‘Irish traditional music’. By the year 2000, however, what had been one of the most notorious organisations in the country had become one of the most accepted, in a complete and almost miraculous turnaround. Presently, the organisation operates with full government sanction, full support of the legal system, and with an unchallenged economic monopoly position in the Irish jurisdiction.

Primary Targets

In one week at the end of April 1996 there was a short flurry of public outcry in the national media and in sessions of the Dáil (the Irish parliament)[iii]. The outcry arose as a result of The Irish Music Rights Organisation’s dogged pursuit of performance royalties in relation to primary schools. The IMRO position was that songs and tunes were being used in public performances, and the writers and composers of those songs and tunes were therefore owed royalty payments for use of their property. Teachers, politicians, and journalists condemned the move. IMRO’s demands to schools were heralded as a direct threat to the continuance of some of education’s most sacred rites, such as the school concert, disco, and even nativity play. The Fianna Fáil[iv] education spokesman of the day, and later Minister for Education, Micheál Martin, declared the demands “anti-music” and called on the Minister for Enterprise and Employment to change the 1963 Copyright Act so that school performances would be exempt from such charges. There was recognition of the fact that the representatives of the organisation were within their legal rights to pursue royalties from primary schools, but the morality of such actions was questioned.

Representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation argued that it was obliged under Irish and international law to collect royalties for composers and songwriters. One of the reasons that such demands hadn’t been made of Irish schools before was that the London-based Performing Right Society had, in IMRO’s estimation, been lax in their duties. Since attaining independence in 1995, Keena reports, the Irish Music Rights Organisation had “tightened up our affairs”. In an article entitled “Sing a Song o’ Sixpence, a pocketful of cash”, Sunday Independent journalist Declan Lynch denounced the organisation’s actions as “petty” and “anti-social,” also commenting on the “widespread odium” that had been generated against the Irish Music Rights Organisation, confirming these disputes as a public relations disaster (Lynch). Ultimately, however, the disputes were settled when, following negotiations, schools agreed to contract for performance royalty licenses at reduced rates. Following that week of controversy, IMRO were to have no more publicly-aired disputes with primary or secondary schools.[v]

If nothing else, IMRO’s brief dispute with primary schools increased brand recognition for the organisation. Described in an Irish Independent headline in 1994 as a ‘Music Rights group’ (Cullen), by 1996 IMRO’s name had reached a level of widespread infamy. Even bad publicity is publicity. All that was left for the organisation to do was to convince those in opposition that they were legitimate, and worthy of widespread support. A second major target for IMRO in performing rights disputes in the 1990s was the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI), an association of Irish publicans operating outside the Dublin area. Publicans objected to the amounts they were being asked to pay for performing rights licences and registered this objection in a campaign of non-cooperation with the Irish Music Rights Organisation. The Vintners’ Federation had been contesting payments to PRS-IMRO since 1984. 1996 saw an escalation of the ongoing disputes between the Vintners’ Federation and the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and a concentration of IMRO’s efforts to resolve them. By the end of 1996 the VFI were the only major music-using group with which IMRO had been unable to agree a tariff for performing rights licences.[vi]

It must be remembered that publicans, for the most part, weren’t arguing that performance royalties shouldn’t be paid to the Irish Music Rights Organisation at all, as had been the case with primary schools. Rather, what was in dispute was the level of the tariff which publicans were being charged for blanket licences. As in the case of primary schools, some felt that the Irish Music Rights Organisation’s pursuit of royalties was unnecessarily aggressive. Other reasons, or rather justifications, were given for opposition to IMRO; among them, that the organisation was undemocratic and unregulated, and in practical terms accountable to no-one. It was felt that the levels of payment requested from the publicans were arbitrary, ‘made-up’, and unjustifiable. IMRO had made numerous attempts to achieve an agreement with the Vintners’ Federation, and it was in their best interests to do so, both financially and from the point of view of public relations. The 1996 IMRO Director’s Report and Financial Statements, however, indicated that 900 court cases were still in progress for non-payment of royalties, mainly against members of the VFI. In 1996, the bill for the Irish Music Rights Organisation’s ‘vigorous pursuit’ of the outstanding debts owed by the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland came to IR£361,293, or 14.7% of net operating expenses.

Irish Traditional Music Enters the Fray

The opposition that arose from among the supporters of primary schools undoubtedly provided the Vintners’ Federation with encouragement for their own opposition to the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and raised the emotional stakes in IMRO’s “vigorous pursuit” of royalties. What had complicated the issue tremendously by 1996, however, was the co-optation of ‘traditional music’ as a major issue in the Vintners’ negotiations. In October of 1996, for example, vintner associates threatened to boycott a music industry event, an Irish traditional Music Expo, ITMEX, in Ennis, County Clare, unless IMRO withdrew their participation. As Vallely comments: “this was akin to having a board meeting without the treasurer” (“Copyright”, 9). As the VFI continued to oppose royalty payments, they turned to the issue of performance royalties for ‘traditional sessions’[vii] to further justify their opposition. This issue provided the Vintners’ Federation with a justification, albeit a dubious one, for the reduction of tariffs for blanket licensing agreements, leading Hugh Duffy to claim that “the VFI are using the traditional music issue to lobby support for their reluctance to pay any writers’ royalties at all” (cited in Vallely, “Copyright”, 8). This was very likely the case. It is important to emphasize that the introduction of the Irish traditional music theme into negotiations was primarily an economic consideration. Although the justifications offered by the VFI were largely insubstantiable[viii], IMRO nevertheless conceded reductions in this regard as part of the deal secured. In retrospect, these concessions amounted to skilful negotiation and savvy public relations. What became clear during the course of these negotiations, however, was that for the people who played in the ‘sessions’ concerned, the issues extended beyond the merely economic.

The Rumble at the Crossroads

‘Crosbhealach an Cheoil – The Crossroads Conference’ (April 19-21, 1996), had been convened as an independent forum in response to growing commercial development within Irish ‘traditional’ culture. The call for discussion had been answered by forty one speakers, and by another three hundred or so conference participants. This was not your usual conference. For perhaps the first time in history, a conference had been called at which practising traditional musicians were in the majority. They had plenty to say, and they were going to make sure that they got to say it. Many were annoyed at a continuous stream of misrepresentation among documentary makers and the national media. Others were tired of those who continually trotted out the tradition versus innovation debate. Some were angry at what they saw as the dilution of the national race and its culture. Others just had a chip on their shoulder. Some were just there for the ‘crack’ [ix].

The Temple Bar Music Centre hadn’t been officially open for more than a year, and the building still had that vague mixture of promise and chaos about it. Inside, up there in a newly-painted room on the third floor, a room probably reserved for the storage of sound equipment at some later date, there was quite a buzz in the air. The room was jammed, packed to the rafters. In the absence of a place to sit I had seated myself precariously and rather uncomfortably on the top of my wooden bodhrán case. There must have been a good fifty people in a room which would have comfortably sat thirty.

The paper was to be entitled, “Irish Traditional Music – Whose Copyright?” William Hammond took a seat in front of the microphone at the table. As he did so, I was aware of the presence, not two feet from where I sat, of the Chief Executive Officer of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO), Hugh Duffy. IMRO had been at the centre of a growing swirl of speculation and discontent among traditional musicians over the previous months, as IMRO had engaged with publicans around the country in pursuit of performance royalties for their members. This continued to cause controversy and confusion, many musicians feeling that one of the vital features of what they considered ‘traditional music’, the ‘session’, was now being placed under threat.

In his broad Cork accent, William Hammond proceeded to describe what he saw as a ‘tollgate’ on the ‘crossroads’ of Irish traditional music. Willie, known more for his prowess as a set-dancer and festival organiser than for his forays into legal difficulties, explained how, in his view, the life of traditional music was being hampered by overzealous collecting on the part of IMRO as they took on the publicans of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland. The Vintners’ position was simple. While they respected IMRO’s right to property, they were unable to agree upon charges which, in their view, were inequitable and which, they felt, derived from IMRO’s monopolistic position.

Willie spoke quietly, and a little hesitantly, obviously not used to speaking in such terms in front of a crowd.

“You can picture the scene where a few lads and lassies who are fed up with competitions and fed up playing on their own, decide to find a place to play a few tunes on a Friday night, and they ask around, and one says,

– I’ve an uncle, he has a bar. He’ll let us play a few tunes for a few pints and expenses.

So the uncle, who pays all his bills to IMRO and PPI for the radio, is delighted to have a few tunes on a Friday night. He decides to put an ad in the paper. So, on the Friday night the group comes in and they take a seat in the corner of the bar for a night of music-making, working out tunes, and tune-swapping.

This is where the law steps in. The local representative of the collection society sees the advert and decides to visit the pub. The representative, seeing the live music, copyrighted music, visits the uncle the next day saying,

– Listen here, you’ve live music going on here. You have to pay £500 a year in advance for the session.

So what does the publican do in that situation?”

Willie continued, admitting that he found it difficult to find where all the pieces fitted into what was overall a very confusing puzzle. He admitted that even finding the smallest amount of information had been a time-consuming exercise. Questioning whether performance rights should cover traditional sessions, he claimed that musicians were finding it harder to find new places to play, and that publicans were cutting back on the number of sessions that they held each week. He expressed worry that the session, the “practice room of Irish traditional music”, was under threat: “No single person is responsible for that tradition. It’s the collective work of many generations of Irish musicians. What rights does it have? None.” Willie finished the talk with a suggestion that maybe it was time for a new society to be formed, a traditional music protection society. The room rang with considered applause. A number of hands were quickly raised to the chairman as people sought a place to speak in reply.

Dermot McLaughlin, then Music Officer for the Arts Council, was one of the first to speak. He expressed reservations about the tone with which the paper had been delivered. “The paper suggested,” he offered, “that copyright legislation is almost a bad thing, when, in fact, a fuller understanding of how the system works would actually suggest something quite different. I think the specifics of how traditional music fits in is actually catered for in law. I think the copyright agencies have certainly done, in my opinion, a fair bit of work to bring traditional music back into the mainstream, so that people who trade and who earn a living from it can do so, and can enjoy the full protection and remuneration that the laws have already put in place. They guarantee a future and an income for the music.”

Willie replied that his only area of conflict with copyright was where it interferes with traditional music. It was hard to hold Hugh Duffy of IMRO from speaking. He was obviously incensed. He stood up, barely waiting for permission to speak. Pointing out a number of inaccuracies in Willie’s presentation, Mr. Duffy sternly reprimanded that he had found a lot of the information very biased.

“Purists like yourself,” he began defiantly, “who defy innovation and question copyright-innovation have allowed the multi-national drinks industry to hijack you, and you are doing no service to the arrangers of copyright music! The arrangers of copyright have been pillaged for the last fifty years both in this country, in the UK, and in America. They haven’t got a penny out of it, and massive fortunes have been made.” “You make the case,” he continued adamantly, “about the poor publican. The publicans are in the business of selling drink. They’re not in the business of anything else …” He restated his accusation of misinformation, and pointed out the financial support that IMRO had provided for the conference.

Sitting next to Hugh Duffy was record producer, song collector and record label director, Robin Morton, now based in Scotland. He rose animatedly to make a number of points:

“I’ve been interested in this issue of copyright protection for twenty five years, and have been fighting the same battle that IMRO have won. I think there’s an awful lot of misunderstanding here of what IMRO’s about and the battle they won with an English organisation called the Performing Right Society. They can put an awful lot of money into an awful lot of people’s pockets in this country and they’ve done a damn good job, and you really should be talking to them. You shouldn’t be coming here!

“The picture you developed there was rather like the picture of an Ancient Ireland where we all sit around in the pubs, and I was nearly crying into my pint, and it was a very emotional scene you were drawing up! This man’s right,” he said, pointing to Hugh Duffy, “The pub owner, this guy’s uncle, is making a lot of money out of it, and you can rest assured that there’s absolutely no reason why that shouldn’t go back to traditional musicians. You can work out a system how that should happen and these people are open to it. I know, I’ve talked to them. They’re reasonable people. They’ve put up a battle for a lot of great musicians in this country to be properly paid. You really should be talking to them, not fighting with them. For Christ’s sake, get in there and talk to them and understand what they’re saying and let them understand what you’re saying!”

The Chair passed the right to speak to Tom Munnelly, a longtime folklorist and song collector from Dublin, now living in County Clare, a place often regarded as the heartland of traditional music.

“I live in an area of West Clare where there are quite a number of pubs and they do have music in them, and they supply a few pints. In fact, if the musicians were paid they’d probably be cheaper.” Laughter broke the tension somewhat. “But this is from personal experience. I am a great believer in ‘Public Domain’. I believe that traditional music and song genuinely belongs to anybody who cares to use it.” He detailed how certain songs he had collected from a singer named John Reilly, for example, The Well Below the Valley, Lord Baker, and the Raggle Taggle Gypsy, had been recorded by singer Christy Moore and the Irish group Planxty. This he had no problem with. “Where I do have a problem is when I get the Planxty songbook and I see ‘The Well Below the Valley, Copyright Phil Coulter.’ Now that pisses me off!”

Robin Morton jumped to Phil Coulter’s defence, saying that if Phil Coulter had not copyrighted the song the money would have gone to some corporation elsewhere. He also testified as a friend to Coulter’s good character, and insisted that there had been no malice intended in Coulter’s actions. “There’s money there to be earned,” Morton insisted, as the Chair repeatedly made attempts to call the session to a close on account of time restrictions, “For God’s sake, take the money from these big organisations! I think the real problem is that no-one knows where it’s coming from. It’s not a rip off!” At that the Chair called a halt to proceedings, joking that from that point on all were banned from speaking any more about this topic, as I raised myself gently from my bodhrán case.

In the context of such concerns, the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland’s fourteen-year dispute with the PRS, PRS-IMRO, and the later independent IMRO ended anti-climactically in late December, 1997. The written documentation of the agreement was accepted at a meeting in Tuam, County Galway, between the VFI President, Paul O’Grady, and the then IMRO Chairman, Brendan Graham. The negotiations had led to an agreed tariff for the collection of performance royalty charges from publicans outside the Dublin area, effective from the 6th January, 1998. Under the newly-agreed tariffs it was stated that “Irish traditional music in the public domain is exempt … but that copyright music will incur the full tariff. Disputes about matters such as the definition and categorisation of music, and the status of Irish traditional music, can be referred to the IMRO/VFI Arbitration Committee …” (Lyons 13). The agreement with the Vintners’ Federation meant that all of the groups that IMRO had targeted as the main ‘music users’ in Ireland had agreed tariffs with the Irish Music Rights Organisation. IMRO’s program of systematic expansion had, it seemed, been successfully completed. As the Irish Music Rights Organisation was to find out, however, the co-optation of ‘traditional music’ and the ‘session’ issue into the Vintners’ negotiations had a sting it its tail.

Musicians Take Note

A number of factors had contributed to the growing visibility of copyright as an issue within so-called ‘traditional’ contexts.[x] The growing popularity of what was labelled ‘Irish traditional’ or ‘Celtic’ music in music industry markets during the eighties and nineties created a climate in which PRS, PRS-IMRO, and then IMRO were called upon to meet the rising expectations of financial rewards from royalties. In turn, the growing recognition of financial reward for new compositions led to an increase in both the number of tunes being composed and registered, and in the number of arrangements being claimed as original and copyrighted. Until the mid-nineties, however, knowledge or awareness of copyright remained the preserve of those for whom financial considerations remained central to their experience of musical practice. For those who did not give much thought to commercial incentive, the issue of copyright remained irrelevant so long as it did not impinge on their lives. The tariff negotiations between the Vintners’ Federation and the Irish Music Rights Organisation made a difference. It still remained something of an esoteric issue, but copyright had begun to impinge.

The growing awareness of copyright and performing rights among musicians started to influence the choice of tunes in sessions at least by 1996. Working from understandings that were nothing if not confused, some musicians would refuse to play certain tunes suggested by other players at ‘traditional sessions’. This was because these tunes were considered ‘copyright’. It was thought that ‘copyright’ tunes couldn’t be played at a ‘traditional session’, as reported to me in 2001:

There was definitely that. I noticed that, that people were more aware of what they were playing and sort of said, ‘Look we’re not going to play any composed music, y’know, so we won’t be playing any Paddy O’Brien or Hammy Hamilton or …’ cause a lot of them would know the music. Yeah, I suppose it shows you that the musicians didn’t know anything about it if they thought that, like (Hammond).

Other musicians refused to play their own tunes until such time as they had been released on a commercial recording, for fear they would lose their copyright. This was very practically an issue of self-censorship in a new awareness of a dichotomy between ‘traditional’ and ‘copyrighted’: “the absurdity of that scenario for the musicians would be the equivalent of censoring pub conversation to exclude mention of ideas in contemporary Irish literature” (Vallely, “Copyright”, 6). Whether these concerns were based on correct interpretations of the law or on complete misunderstandings was of little matter. On the whole they contributed further to an atmosphere of confusion.

The initial reaction to the licensing of ‘sessions’ among many people was simple incredulity. They couldn’t see how the ideas of ‘copyright’, ‘intellectual property’ or ‘property’ of any sort could be applied to ‘traditional’ contexts, and specifically the ‘session’. There was a clear perception of a radical disconnect. This generally ran along the lines of: “But there is no copyright in traditional music?” It simply wasn’t considered to have anything to do with what ‘traditional music’ was all about. As Martin Hayes, one of the most respected Irish musicians on the commercial scene, commented in Seattle: “I mean, like, nobody owns the stuff. You can’t own this stuff” (Hayes). Another musician in Philadelphia phrased it similarly: “The music doesn’t belong to anybody, so if somebody’s trying to learn it and you can help them, it’s not yours, so it’s not like you can hold back because it’s not yours anyway” (Rogers). That the idea of copyright and performance royalties could be so far removed from musicians’ understandings of ‘traditional’ ways of thinking was exemplified by the colourful reaction of a commercially-successful and highly regarded Irish-American musician and composer to the news during an interview that ‘sessions’ in Ireland were deemed to be liable for performing rights licensing:

Get out of town! I can’t believe that. … Man that’s so sticky. Holy cow, though, I can’t even imagine them trying to pursue that. … Oh no no no. Wait a second, from a session? … So who pays? The pub or the musicians? So there would be somebody sitting there and marking down every tune that went by to see who it goes to? … How do they divvy it up? How can they decide? It’s bizarre. It’s really bizarre (Carroll).

Many people who played music and also compose tunes found it hard to reconcile the logic of copyright with the fact that they would be quite delighted if their tunes were played at ‘sessions’, even if no-one knew that they had composed them. The attitude of Maighréad Ní Mhaonaigh, fiddler with successful music group Altán, was typical: “The best thing is to compose tunes and not have people recognise them as newly-composed, that they slip back into the tradition. For me that’s the biggest thrill of all” (Ní Mhaonaigh). Vallely quotes fiddler Máire Breathnach, another commercially-active performer, as saying: “That kind of recognition is superior to any payment” (Vallely, “Session”), and elsewhere notes that many musicians and composers who welcome IMRO royalty cheques for their own work in overtly commercial contexts, are adamant that ‘sessions’ should not be liable (“Copyright”, 8). As one musician said to me rather bluntly: “You’re not entitled to a copyright if it’s being played in the session, because that’s alien to the whole culture to do something like that” (Hammond).

Save the Session

Some of the fears that ‘traditional’ supporters felt paralleled the concerns of the defenders of primary schools. There was concern, for example, that IMRO’s demands might discourage publicans from allowing ‘sessions’ on their premises at all. Some, like William Hammond (4), felt that IMRO’s actions were directly threatening the existence of ‘the practice room’ of ‘traditional music’. On the fourth of February, 1997, Fintan Vallely published a feature article in The Irish Times sensationally entitled “Save the Session”. It was the first nationally published statement on the matter, and the effect it had on conversations around the country, and, indeed, around the world, was swift. The issue of copyright briefly achieved celebrity status among musicians. The Irish traditional music mailing list on the internet, IRTRAD-L[xi], with about 600 members at any time, was informed of the article on the day of its release. A list-member posted the article in its entirety for those without world wide web access. For the next two days the list engaged in passionate discussion of the issues. “Save the Session” undoubtedly provided the clearest commentary on the issue to date. The main concern seemed to be clear, and echoed the concerns that had been voiced previously. IMRO was approaching publicans regarding licensing for performance royalties due to their members. Where ‘traditional’ music was concerned, ‘arrangements’ of tunes whose copyright had expired, played by IMRO members, were deemed to accrue royalties. Three things seemed to justify IMRO’s jurisdiction in this matter: these ‘arrangements’, the presence of newly-composed, copyrighted tunes at ‘sessions’, and the authority of legislation and international agreements. Many musicians expressed concern that this was inappropriate, and an intrusion, if not actually indirectly threatening the continuance of many sessions in pubs.

Rumours abounded that sessions were being shut down on account of pressure placed on publicans by representatives of IMRO. It is clear from the passage above that the Vintners’ Federation in no way sought to diminish these rumours.[xii] A number of publicans did not consider a ‘session’ a financial venture, but merely a favour to some local musicians. Were they obliged to think about it as a financial endeavour requiring a licence, they might well decide that not having a ‘session’ at all might be less hassle. But this would really only be an issue if no other music, of any sort, was ‘used’ on the premises. Any other ‘music use’ at all would require a blanket licence, rendering the ‘session issue’ largely irrelevant. All in all, the perceived threat to sessions was greatly exaggerated and largely erroneous.[xiii] It remained, though, a highly emotive and charged concern in the atmosphere of the Vintners’ opposition to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. Furthermore, it created a dubious cause and effect scenario which helped to justify negative impressions of IMRO’s role.

Blanketing the Issues

As noted before, however, it wasn’t necessary that IMRO consider the views of a disparate ‘traditional’ lobby at all. IMRO’s dispute with the Vintners’ Federation was purely a contractual and financial one, based on disagreements over the level of tariffs. To argue that IMRO had no jurisdiction in these contexts was hardly likely to faze an organisation that claimed absolute jurisdiction in all places outside of the family circle where there might be the possibility of even one copyright work being played. Sinacore-Guinn (29) reminds us that the licensing process is fundamentally adversarial – users and collectives ultimately wanting different things. There is no room to contribute to this equation unless one is either a licensor or a licensee. Furthermore, to argue that certain contexts were non-commercial was hardly likely to succeed in the face of an organisation whose representatives claimed that all contexts were commercial, and that the primary motivation of human life was economic.

Three binary oppositions were central to musicians’ confusion about the inclusion of ‘sessions’ within the regulatory authority of the Irish Music Rights Organisation: ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’; ‘commercial’ or ‘non-commercial; and, ‘for profit’ and ‘not for profit’. Each opposition was based on an assessment of the social and contextual elements of what may have been considered ‘sessions’. Elements which might have been considered by someone seeking to make a judgement of a ‘session’ on the basis of such oppositions might have included whether or not any of the musicians were paid, whether or not the ‘session’ was amplified, or whether or not the pub-owner was seen to benefit commercially from the ‘session’.

Ultimately, however, none of these concerns were really an issue for the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation. The issuing of blanket licences, as well as the all-embracing logic of performance royalty collection, ensured that anything judged by IMRO to be a ‘performance’ of a copyrighted work outside of the family circle was to be adjudged a ‘public performance’. Any ‘public performance’ was a commercial concern, and therefore subject to a royalty payment. This was the case regardless of the musical genre. With the law on their side, it didn’t really matter what anyone else thought. From the point of view of the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation there is no such thing as a non-commercial, not-for-profit ‘session’, because musical activity implies ‘works’, which implies ‘commercial interest’. Moreover, with blanket licences the onus was on the licensed premises to show that only non-copyright music was being played. If this were not shown to be the case, IMRO could claim complete and absolute jurisdiction without needing to consider the nature of the social conditions, or the genre of the musical activity. For ‘traditional sessions’, the representatives of the organisation could indeed claim complete jurisdiction, given that the presence of even one performance of a copyrighted ‘arrangement’, of a tune or song not itself considered to be in copyright, constituted a justification for licensing. Again, the burden of proof demanded disproof.

Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Opposition to IMRO

No organised ‘traditional’ lobby group grew out of the diffuse resistance to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. However, the major Irish traditional music organisation already in existence, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ) (‘Association of Musicians of Ireland’), provided somewhat more structured opposition.[xiv] At the time that ‘traditional music’ became a focus of the VFI-IMRO dispute the official position of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann as an organisation was one of unequivocable non-communication with regard to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. The full-time Ard-Stiúrthóir or Director-General of the organisation, Labhrás Ó Murchú, insisted to the members of his organisation that to talk to IMRO was to acknowledge their role and authority. In 1996, the members of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann overwhelmingly passed a motion at their national congress pledging non-involvement with the Irish Music Rights Organisation under any conditions. In the same year a representative of CCÉ’s subsidiary trade union, the Association of Irish Traditional Musicians, dismissed IMRO as “an English import”, while Ó Murchú himself could not even be drawn to make a comment on the matter (Vallely, “Copyright”, 9).

Labhrás Ó Murchú has been in charge of the operations of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann since 1968. The position he holds is a lifetime appointment, and one not included in the organisation’s constitution. Appointed as a trustee of the organisation, he also holds the position of main spokesperson for Comhaltas, and is the editor of the organisation’s journal, Treoir. In 1997 Ó Murchú was nominated and elected to the Culture and Education Panel of Seanad Éireann, the Irish Senate. He was at the time of these issues a member of Oireachtas (government) committees on education, heritage and Irish language, and the deputy government spokesperson on these matters within the Seanad.

What particularly focused Ó Murchú’s attention on the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and what caused him to break his public silence, was the passage of the Copyright and Related Rights bill through the Irish parliament. Said to be the largest piece of legislation ever to have passed through parliament, it was the first time that the issue of copyright had been specifically addressed in Irish legislation since the Copyright Act, 1963. The new legislation was to be a significant revision and expansion of the 1963 Act in line with advances in technology, international obligations, and the laws of the European Union. A draft of the proposed bill for the new Copyright and Related Rights Acts was published in early 1998, whereupon lobbying interests began to make their case known through the voices of Senators in the Irish Seanad.

In his role as Senator, Ó Murchú lobbied against the Copyright bill, which inconveniently placed him in opposition to the official line of the Chief Whip of his political party, Fianna Fáil. At this point it is clear that Ó Murchú’s role as Senator and his role as Ard-Stiúrthóir of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann were not clearly distinguished from each other insofar as his representative capacity was concerned. In March, 1998, Ó Murchú attended a UNESCO conference in Stockholm, “The Power of Culture”, as a member of a delegation from the Oireachtas. Quite by accident, he found himself at a session which discussed issues concerning the encroachment of intellectual property rights upon traditional cultures. The concerns expressed at this session, and the widely-expressed need that certain protective measures needed to be enacted, provided him with internationally-sanctioned conceptual support for the anti-copyright stance of his organisation and his lobbying efforts.[xv]

Ó Murchú’s, and hence Comhaltas’, position against IMRO very much reflected the concerns generally expressed around the country. They had, he felt, no expertise or appropriate understanding of what might be considered ‘traditional music’. Furthermore, as far as the mandate of the Irish Music Rights Organisation was concerned, Ó Murchú claimed that the number of people in traditional music for whom copyright was an issue, whether they were commercially active or not, was negligible. He gave the clear impression that the vast majority of musicians involved in the commercial world would never even consider the issue of copyright, seeing traditional music as a free music, in the sense that everybody could play it, without restriction, without consideration of ownership.[xvi] The other side of that argument, which Ó Murchú was very clear about, was that the copyright ethic of claiming ownership on tunes and songs that IMRO was promoting was anathema to the spirit of generosity which had sustained the types of “traditional” musical activity which Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann represented.[xvii] While for representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation “traditional” primarily means “anonymous” and therefore in the “public domain”, Ó Murchú was adamant that this position was not one his organisation could go along with.

This clash of approaches to music or musical activity was fundamental. Because of it, the development and expansion of copyright as an issue, and the expansion of IMRO as an organisation, would lead, he felt, to certain behavioural changes and the self-imposition of restrictions among traditional musicians.[xviii] He considered it the duty of his organisation to contribute to the debate in the Senate “before it’s too late”. He believed that once the debate was opened up, and IMRO’s intentions made clear, that it would have a considerable effect on musicians and the ways in which they thought about what they were doing. he stated in interview with me, “Their intent, whatever about their mandate, is to expand and expand”. Ó Murchú was also somewhat concerned that the public relations efforts of the Irish Music Rights Organisation in this regard were contributing to a veil of positivity which made it difficult to focus on the issues of conflict which remained to be debated. The Irish Music Rights Organisation, for example, had been increasing the level of sponsorship for ‘traditional music’ events in a bid to increase levels of support for their project. Ó Murchú’s stated aim at this stage, however, was to try to ensure that the ‘corpus’ of music that was already there could be protected by legislation. He expressed a need to sit down with the Irish Music Rights Organisation to work out some of the problems, rather than “doing this across tables and across headlines” (Ó Murchú, “Eagarfhocal”, 1).[xix]

It is questionable whether Ó Murchú would have been interested in the idea of copyright at all had it not been for the aggressive manoeuvres of the Irish Music Rights Organisation towards venues and events which ran under the auspices of his organisation. The Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann committee in Clonmel was, in 1996, billed by IMRO for the ‘use’ of copyrighted music during the course of the festival. At around the same time a Comhaltas centre in County Clare, Cois na hAbhna, and another in County Westmeath, Dún na Sí, also received bills for the ‘use’ of copyrighted music:

It was good in a way that it happened as it gave me ammunition subsequently. Luckily enough each of those three contacted me. There could always be the danger that one of them could have written a cheque and sent it to IMRO, but they all contacted me, and I rang IMRO and I said, “Look, back off.” (Ó Murchú, “Personal interview”).

It was of great concern to Ó Murchú that the Copyright and Related Rights bill not allow for some legislative possibility that would severely impede the musical practices of those in his organisation and allow the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation to continue unimpeded: “If anything gets into that which is going to create a loophole for IMRO or any collecting agencies we’ve a problem” (Ó Murchú, “Personal interview”). Assurance had apparently been given in writing by Minister Tom Kitt, however, that “under no circumstances would the corpus of traditional music be interfered with” (ibid.).

Treoir magazine published an article entitled “Irish Traditional Music must not be licensed” in the second issue of 1998 (Ó Murchú, “Eagarfhocal”, 1). The article was an almost verbatim report of Ó Murchú’s spoken contributions to a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Heritage to which IMRO representatives had been invited to speak. No other contributions were registered in this article. Stating that it was imperative that IMRO did not “stifle or inhibit the natural momentum of Irish traditional music”, Ó Murchú championed his organisation for having “ploughed a lonely furrow to save our music from extinction”. “To ask our musicians to take out a licence to play their music,” he added, “would be the equivalent of asking a young lad to pay for the privilege of hurling a sliothar [sic.][xx]”. What was particularly interesting, and most definitely a sign of things to come, was the final line of the article: “The IMRO representatives gave an assurance that Irish traditional music, as outlined by Senator Ó Murchú, would not be restricted or hampered by IMRO.”[xxi] 

The Agreement

Following a series of private meetings, Shay Hennessy, then Chairman of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and Labhrás Ó Murchú, Ard-Stiúrthóir (Director-General) of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, signed a ‘Letter of Agreement’ on the 21st December 1998. In this “wide-ranging agreement” CCÉ and IMRO agree to cooperate in the promotion of traditional Irish music, song, and dance, to the mutual benefit of members of both organisations. IMRO stated that they accepted that the provisions of copyright law “should not deprive Irish people of the right to make free use of music from their folk/heritage tradition in its original form”. According to this agreement, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann contracted with the Irish Music Rights Organisation for a blanket licence to cover all official Comhaltas functions and centres, excluding broadcasts, for the sum of £1,000 per annum. In return for the blanket licence, and allegedly in recognition of the cultural work that Comhaltas undertake, IMRO agrees to make a “financial subvention” to Comhaltas for the sum of £50,000 per year, commencing in January 1999. This sum is to be reviewed at the end of a five-year term. As part of the agreement, IMRO also agrees to refer all requests for support for Traditional music to CCÉ. An additional sum of money, a “financial subvention” of £25,000 per year, was also included, going to Brú Ború, a cultural centre affiliated to Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in order to assist a “millenium project to encourage the creativity and development of composers and arrangers writing in the traditional idiom”. CCÉ, in return, agreed to support IMRO’s submission to the Irish Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in relation to the proposed Copyright bill.

The Agreement was announced in the first 1999 issue of Treoir magazine, under the heading: “IMRO and Comhaltas Sign Agreement” (CCÉ 6), and in the June, 1999 issue of the IMRO Members Newsletter, in an article entitled, “IMRO and Comhaltas Céoltóirí [sic] Éireann Sign Agreement to Benefit Traditional Irish Music” (IMRO, “June”, 6). Although mention is made in both articles of both the blanket licence and the financial contribution to Comhaltas, no mention is made of the sums involved or of any other details. The IMRO Newsletter simply states that: “In recognition of the work being done by Comhaltas, IMRO will provide financial support to help encourage and foster the creativity and development of composers and arrangers writing in their traditional idiom”.[xxii] It continues:

Speaking on behalf of Comhaltas, Senator Labhrás Ó’Murchú [sic] said that the agreement will result in very significant benefits to both organisations. He also stressed the importance of a copyright-friendly environment as the digital age develops and pledged his organisations [sic] backing to the submissions made by IMRO to the Department of Enterprise, Trade & Employment in relation to the proposed Copyright Bill (6).

The article in Treoir further reported that: “Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, Ardstiúrthóir, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, said that the agreement will result in very significant benefits to both organisations. ‘Traditional Irish music is winning new audiences all over the world and this agreement will contribute further to its development in all its forms’” (6). Although this was offered as having been said by the Senator, these were also the exact words found in the text of IMRO’s 1998 Annual Report and Accounts (15). The two representative voices of the organisations had truly become one.

Then Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Tom Kitt, published sanctioning remarks in issue 2 of Treoir magazine in 1999, which gave official legitimation to the agreement between IMRO and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. In an article whose title proclaimed “Pure Tradition Copyright Free”, his own remarks clearly placed his understanding of the word “traditional” within cultural nationalist and romantic discourses of “the folk”. His remarks contrasted that which is authentically traditional, communal, non-creative, non-original, and non-copyrightable, with that which is authored, individual, creative, original, and copyrightable.[xxiii] Furthermore, his hope was that the agreement which had been signed would go a long way to ensuring the eradication of conflict within “the music community”.

Initially, when no sums were disclosed, some members of Comhaltas inquired officially as to whether a licence-fee had been paid to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. Some were worried that the payment of a licence-fee would constitute recognition that the Irish Music Rights Organisation was a suitable licence-granting authority in contexts of traditional music, setting a significant precedent for similar organisations worldwide. They were assured by official representatives of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann that no licence had been paid for. This assurance was given three months after the agreement with IMRO had been signed, at which time the full sums of money involved had not yet become public knowledge. When they became public knowledge, it was understood that the licence fee of £1000 obviously constituted little more than a nominal payment. What was important about the licence fee, though, was that it officially granted the Irish Music Rights Organisation full nominal jurisdiction in the contexts of traditional Irish music, insofar as Labhrás Ó Murchú and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann were recognised by IMRO as being the primary authorities in those contexts.

It later transpired that none of the members of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann had been informed in advance of the Ard-Stiúrthóir’s intention to sign an agreement with the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and in fact the first cheques were handed over before the official committees of CCÉ were able to approve the agreement as per the proper constitutional conventions of the organisation. As suggested above, neither were high-ranking members of CCÉ informed of the full financial details of the agreement until they had, in fact, become public knowledge following a series of possibly accidental information leaks.

One Year On

By Issue 1, 2000, of Treoir, the ‘Letter of Agreement’ had become “The Cooperation Agreement”, the first birthday of which had been reached by December 1999. In this article, “A Protection for Ethnic Music”, it was reaffirmed that ‘the Agreement’ “underlines the copyright-free status of Irish traditional music in its original form” (CCÉ, “Protection”, 19). This was stated despite any such claim being in the original letter of agreement. Neither had the agreement, or anything else for that matter, managed to arrive at a successful or adequate legal definition of what ‘traditional’ meant, never mind “Irish traditional music in its original form”. That the phrase used in the original agreement was “music from their [Irish people’s] folk/heritage tradition in its original form” simply added to the confusion. In the “Cooperation Agreement” article, more than a year after the agreement, there was still no disclosure of the sums of money involved, although at least now there was an admission that Brú Ború had received an undisclosed “financial subscription”. To mark the anniversary, the article reported, Shay Hennessy, then IMRO Chairman, and Hugh Duffy, then IMRO’s Chief Executive Officer, addressed the CCÉ Ardchomhairle (‘Advisory Board’). It was reported that the 27 member Ardchomhairle “unanimously[xxiv] expressed satisfaction with the relationship to date between Comhaltas and IMRO and endorsed the discussions which are ongoing between both organisations over a range of issues that are important not only to both organisations but to the future of Irish creators of all genres in the next century” (ibid.).[xxv]  At this meeting it was repeatedly stated during the IMRO address that the agreement had, indeed, achieved the “copyright-free status of traditional music in its original form”. [xxvi]

Ó Murchú was convinced that ‘the end of debate’ has been reached, that the ‘problem’ of copyright and traditional music has been solved, that the role of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann as representative of Irish traditional music has been vindicated and legitimated, and that all problems have been eliminated. He was to state during a presentation at the University of Limerick: “What we now have is legislation, the Minister on the record, and an agreement with the collecting agency that traditional music in its original form is copyright-free. And the second part of it, that we are not going to be interfered with in our activities” (Ó Murchú, “Lecture”). Likewise, the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation were satisfied that it had all worked out to the mutual advantage of both organisations. As the then-chairman of the organisation stated: “Comhaltas has about 37,000 members worldwide, which is a fairly large constituency of people, and certainly there are a potential 27,000 IMRO members in that constituency, or whatever percentage there might be of that 37,000, we’ll certainly be there assisting them and helping them to develop their creativity” (Hennessy).

Enclosure and the Diagnostic Opportunities of Resistance

I have discussed IMRO in the context of Irish traditional music communities before, in an article published in the journal Ethnomusicology (McCann, “All That is Not Given”). That article was structured with a binary opposition. On one side, I sought “to clarify the nature of the social relationships that are inextricably bound up with Irish traditional musical practice” (89). For this purpose I used the concept of the “musical commons”. I surmised that the social contexts of ‘Irish traditional music’ are “based on the idea of gift, which supports what could be seen as a characteristically non-commodified common property resource” (95). This “commons” of “gift” was presented as “inherently non-commodified” and “deeply embedded in cultural practice” (97). On the other side, in direct opposition, I placed the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO), and the commodifying constraints of copyright. Having established that the practices of ‘Irish traditional music’ constituted a commons of gift, I argued for the usefulness of the concept of enclosure: “It would not be too difficult to then see the commodifying processes of neo-classical economics, commercialism in music, and of the conceptually-bound and conceptually-driven agency of the Irish Music Rights Organisation as an example of enclosure in a musical context” (95). In this line of thinking, it was only through an analysis of a “commons” that an understanding of enclosure could emerge.

In that paper, then, the concept of the commons provided an analytic and, explicitly, a defensive focus. In this paper, however, I am arguing that it is not through an analysis of any defensively-constructed commons that understandings of enclosure helpfully emerge, but, rather, through the identification and analysis of moments and situations of resistance and conflict. If expansion is the primary characteristic of IMRO’s operations from 1995-2000, it is only through an awareness of resistance to that expansion that such dynamics of enclosure are rendered politically visible.

The flavour of the most public resistance to the organisation’s operations was undoubtedly oppositional. “Resistance,” in all three cases offered here, referred to a manifestation of opposition to the expansion, that is, authority, of the Irish Music Rights Organisation in such a way as to hinder the licensing operations of the organisation. Resistance, in this sense, was an indication of a refusal to comply with IMRO’s contractual expectations. In the case of both the primary schools and the Vintners’ Federation, resistance was vociferous. The claims made by IMRO representatives were characterised in both disputes as being unnecessarily aggressive. In the case of primary schools, the claims to jurisdiction were even portrayed as being both inappropriate and immoral, though undeniably “legal”. In the case of the Vintners’ Federation, the most obvious resistance took the form of adversarial legal action in direct opposition to the demands of the Irish Music Rights Organisation. But the most important aspect of people’s representations of resistance in these circumstances for me is not their oppositional character, but the ways in which such resistance can draw attention to very particular modalities of power. Despite the apparent victories achieved by the Irish Music Rights Organisation, resistance does at the very least provide an analytic window through which to uncover the fragilities of their authority and the discursive character of their forever questionable assertions (as any assertions tend to be).

Performing rights provided, and continue to provide, the focus for their assertions. Performing rights provide one of the main financial supports for the international music industry. When you clear away all the legal jargon, and it’s difficult enough to clear away, the primary function of performing or performance rights, as gleaned from copyright theory, is that they act as a justification for prescriptive control, suggesting that it is legitimate for one person to prescribe the actions of another unless a fee is paid. I have suggested elsewhere that there may be little basis to the logic behind IMRO’s licensing of “uses” of “music” in public spaces other than: “Obey me! Pay me money! (or else!)” (McCann, “For A Song”). For IMRO to operate successfully, or even to operate at all, licences for “music use” must be enforced on the basis of either persuasion or litigation, and the claims to authority that the organisation makes must needs remain unchallenged. Without resistance, such enclosing dynamics might well lead everyone to believe that there are simply no alternatives.

One formal definition of ‘resistance’ presents it as: “The act, on the part of persons, of resisting, opposing, or withstanding. … Opposition of one material thing to another material thing, force, etc. … esp. in the physical sciences, the opposition offered by one body to the pressure or movement of another” (Onions, ed. 1807). Similarly, resistance in social life is often defined in terms of dualisms. One popular dualism is that of resistance in opposition to power or domination: “The orthodox assumption seems to be that resistance is against power and that effective resistance will eventually overturn power” (Cresswell 264). Analyses of resistance, therefore, have tended to focus on social movements, organised in opposition to dominant forces of state or multinational capital (see Sharp et al.). Dominant understandings of resistance constitute a prime example of oppositional definition, resistance being most often defined in relation to its ‘opposite’, that being ‘power’ or ‘domination’. In some cases, indeed, the ‘power’ is represented as being so ‘powerful’ that resistance is the work of the powerless, and hence futile (Sharp et al 2). It would seem, perhaps, that to equate resistance with opposition is an obvious way to understand the examples of resistance to IMRO’s expansion presented here. However, the well-trodden analytic path may not be the most helpful way to proceed. To illustrate some of the problems with a purely oppositional understanding of resistance to corporate expansion it is perhaps helpful to take a look at a cyclical model of expansion found in the work of John Ryan.

In The Production of Culture in the Music Industry, sociologist John Ryan details the history of the ASCAP-BMI controversy over the collection of performing rights royalties in the United States. Ryan follows the development of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) from its establishment in 1914, and the subsequent conflict between ASCAP and a rival firm, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). Ryan notes that: “ASCAP’s early history was a continual cycle of laying claim to a particular domain, a challenge to this claim by concerned music users, legitimation of ASCAP’s claim by the courts, followed by a new expansion of domain” (31). The correlation in this regard between ASCAP’s early history and the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation after 1995 are striking. The dynamic Ryan has identified I think of as a “cycle of expansion”. This could be used to speak of the fundamental pattern of IMRO’s expansionary activities during the period 1995-2000. It can be simply restated as a cycle of expansion, resistance, and legitimation, followed by further expansion. The term “expansion” is here used in two senses. It refers to an enlargement in the scale of IMRO’s operations, and also to an increase in the number of domains or areas in which the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation claim jurisdiction.

It is important, if Ryan’s model is to be used in the contexts outlined, that it be used only to describe but not explain the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation in the period 1995-2000. Were it used as an explanatory model, the analysis would then privilege the cyclical and inevitable victory of the expansionary force over any resistance offered, render acquiescence to IMRO’s claims to unquestionable authority inevitable and politically unremarkable, and enact analytic capitulation to the discursive power of the truth-claims being made. The expansion is a profoundly political achievement, involving particular people in particular circumstances. The dynamic of expansion is, at heart, a manifestation of personal investments in ways of thinking and ways of doing. This expansion might be helpfully understood, indeed, as the political extension of authority-as-certitude, accompanied by sustained acquiescence to rhetorical assertions of unquestioned authority.

Thanks to the work of Foucault, some have claimed that, “Resistance is in danger of becoming a meaningless and theoretically unhelpful term” (Cresswell 259). This is largely on account of Foucault’s statement that: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (95). Foucault has argued at length for the ubiquity of power. It follows, therefore, that he must also be arguing for the ubiquity of resistance. As Cresswell remarks, however:

Something that is applicable to everything is not a particularly useful tool in interrogating social and cultural life. … Everybody is so busy resisting always, and already, that little more needs to be done. One problem is that an act such as an armed insurrection or a general strike is equated with the act of farting in public or telling jokes about the boss. The word resistance can apply to all of these and yet they are clearly more different than they are alike (259).

If we ground Foucault’s understanding of the ubiquity of power in the affectual variabilities of any experience in social interaction, however, we can also perhaps reclaim the specificities and possibilities of resistance, without necessarily defaulting to either oppositional or hopelessly diffuse models. Resistance, I believe, can be helpfully understood as expectational difference, located in particular circumstances, lived and experienced by particular people, with very particular effects of power. This allows us to think of resistance in a way which is not necessarily opposed to power or domination. In many ways resistance, then, might be understood as the tension of difference within social life. Its ubiquity might render it totally useless were it not for the benefits of the identification of resistance as an invitation to diagnostic possibilities for the analysis of the dynamics of enclosure.

Cresswell’s use of resistance as a diagnostic tool stems from Lila Abu-Lughod’s anthropological fieldwork among Bedouin women. The complex realities of Bedouin life challenged Abu-Lughod’s search for resistance as the absence or incompleteness of power. The ‘romance of resistance’ with which she had originally approached her work had led her to foreclose her analyses of power and social life among Bedouin women. It was ultimately more useful to allow resistance to “tell us about forms of power and how people are caught up in them” (42). Tim Cresswell combines the work of Abu-Lughod with the insights of Foucault, thereby inverting Foucault’s dictum, that where there is power there is resistance, to come up with the slogan that “everywhere there is resistance there is also power” (265):

It is important that we do not stop thinking about everyday forms of resistance, but equally important that we do not romanticise and essentialise them. Rather than telling us how people are free or partially free from forces of oppression inscribed in space, resistance can be used strategically to reveal how people are caught up in a multitude of often invisible modes of power (266).

In my work I use manifestations of resistance, such as those above, to provide diagnostic opportunities (rather than ‘tools’), with which to identify the process and practices of enclosure. In previous work I have, like many others (see, for example, May), equated enclosure with commodification, and, indeed, have done so with regard to IMRO’s claims to jurisdiction in the realm of Irish traditional musical practice (McCann, “All That Is Not Given”). When I speak of enclosure now, however, I adopt a more social-psychological approach. I have come to understand enclosure as a broader social process, an expansionary social dynamic involving accelerative commodification of everyday life, emerging from dominant dispositional tendencies to “eliminate” uncertainty (McCann, “Beyond The Commons”). It is in this sense that I politically contextualize the discursive absolutisms of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and in this sense that I take resistance almost as a homing beacon for the identification of such discursive politics as a particular modality of power enacted in social relations. The expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation from 1995-2000 relied almost entirely on the assertion and extension of authority-as-certitude, that is, authority about which there was to be no doubt tolerated.

I proceed in the spirit of Stuart Hall’s remark that “The effects of power are particularly visible when attempts are made to fix meanings” (10).[xxvii] We might say that we are only able to identify the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, the extension of the organisation’s authority-as-certitude, by identifying and highlighting the moments and sites of people’s greatest resistance to that expansion. Importantly, where authority-as-certitude is concerned there can be no middle ground. The claims of authority-as-certitude must be met with either acceptance or rejection. One of the primary features of resistance in situations of enclosure, then, is that it is characteristically negotiated within discourses of obedience and disobedience, loyalty and disloyalty, orthodoxy and heresy, truth and error. This is clearly evident in the polarization of legality and illegality that overshadows the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and, indeed, any operation reliant on the certitudes of legislation.


The representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation are now allowed to assert absolute authority to undertake activities and deploy strategies in all domains within the Irish state. This includes the unquestioned status of the meanings and prescriptions that they propagate in the name of copyright, performing rights, members, and market economics. With the accession of primary schools, the Vintner’s Federation, and Comhaltas to IMRO’s demands, the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation moved further towards an intensification of hegemony.  This includes the power of hegemonic definition (Anderson 130). One of the key features of hegemony, as developed in the Marxist tradition from the writings of Antonio Gramsci, is the political and personal force of very particular ways of making sense of experience:

It is different in this sense from the notion of ‘world-view’, in that the ways of seeing the world and ourselves and others are not just intellectual but political facts, expressed over a range from institutions to relationships and consciousness. It is also different from ideology … in that it is seen to depend for its hold not only on its expression of the interests of a ruling class but also on its acceptance as ‘normal reality’ or ‘commonsense’ by those in practice subordinated to it (Williams 117-118).

One of the most significant effects of IMRO’s achievement of hegemony is that the “unquestionable” authority of “self-evidence” comes to be vested in the organization. With the achievement of hegemony, the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and the assumptions upon which they are based, become naturalized, assuming a patina of necessity and inevitability.  The existence of the organization “becomes experienced as an axiom, a fait accompli: children all too soon stop asking ‘Why?’” (Jenkins 107). With the self-evidence of the existence of the Irish Music Rights Organisation comes systematic reinforcement of the organisation’s authority-as-certitude. Something as simple as an IMRO sticker on the door of every commercial premises in the country quietly reinforces the position of the Irish Music Rights Organisation as a taken-for-granted presence in the social interactions of everyday life in Ireland. Many music festivals are sponsored by the organisation, increasing brand recognition and garnering bucketloads of positivity-by-association. IMRO showcase gigs are held regularly to showcase the musical talents of IMRO members in major Irish population centres such as Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, and Wexford. Such exposure allows the organisation to consolidate the unchallenged position it holds in virtually all contexts of Irish life. The unquestioned status of the organisation is perpetuated, the hegemony of IMRO’s influence maintained.

Such aspects are vital in considering the discursive implications of the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation. As Bocock (63) notes, in hegemony the representatives of a group or organisation successfully achieve their objective of providing a dominant, prioritised, and centralised outlook that operates in all aspects of social life. The Irish Music Rights Organisation provides just such an outlook, at least insofar as copyright, music, and ownership are concerned.

By participating unquestioningly in the discourses of music and copyright we also participate actively in the accelerative commodification of musical practice. One of the key implications of IMRO’s resource management discourses is that they depoliticize the discursive terrain, immunizing IMRO against sustained ethical interrogation, frequently co-opting resistance by providing the scaffolding of more authoritative discourse as the only (near-sighted) horizon of possibility: “Past experience is encapsulated in an institution’s rules so that it acts as a guide to what to expect from the future. The more fully the institutions encode expectations, the more they put uncertainty under control, with the further effect that behaviour tends to conform to the institutional matrix: if this degree of coordination is achieved, disorder and confusion disappear” (Douglas 47-48).

The hegemonic dynamics of IMRO’s operations effectively sustain the impression of ‘the end of debate’; resistance to the foundation of IMRO’s authority is consistently rendered ineffective, politically irrelevant, and, especially now, discursively invisible. Law, legal doctrine, legal practice, and, by association, the role, activities, and expansion of bodies such as the Irish Music Rights Organisation are implicated in our everyday interactions and social relationships. Legislation, in any jurisdiction, consists of a set of prescriptions which specify the way in which legal subjects ought to behave. But law also “exists in the sense that it is embodied as a set of expectations or understandings about behaviour” (Cotterrell 155), and it “only ‘exists’ if the prescriptions of conduct actually have some effect on the way people think or behave” (9). The law, then, takes on a very palpable presence in our lives. However, it is always possible to raise questions even while the absence of questioning may have become the air that we breathe and the lifeblood of our financial wellbeing.


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[i] Enforcement of the property right of copyright can be exercised by other persons by licence or assignment (WIPO 1997b:5). When the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation identify that a premises requires an IMRO license the proprietor is approached, and asked to sign a standard public performance contract. The licence granted by IMRO permits the licensee “to perform copyright music from the IMRO repertoire on the premises, in return for paying royalties to IMRO according to the applicable tariff” (Lyons 1999:7). IMRO agents are granted a right of free entry, for monitoring purposes, to any premises which has been licensed.

Licensing constituted the primary activity of the Irish Music Rights Organisation during the period 1995-2000, for “the licensing of works is how collectives earn their money” (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:30). In 1999 licensing revenue for the Irish Music Rights Organisation came to IR£17,418,077. In 2000, the figure had risen to IR£19,457,780 (IMRO 2000:6). The performance royalty licensing rates vary greatly from premises to premises. They take account of the type and frequency of ‘performances’, the nature of the venue and other variable conditions. Royalties are paid annually and, in advance. This blanket licence[i] runs from year to year, until such time as the licence is cancelled. Most music users will not attempt to contact licensing collectives. Often they will only enter into a licensing agreement upon threat of litigation (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:36). As a result, collectives actively identify and pursue all potential music users:

It is an unfortunate fact of life that respect for the rights of creators is not the norm. A significant number of users avoid or even actively resist a collective’s efforts to control the use of its repertoire of works. It is up to the collective to assert its rights and the rights of its affiliated rights owners in a way that will cause compliance (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:39).

Strong-arm, coercive tactics, including litigation, are generally avoided, as they are costly and generate bad public relations. Nevertheless, licensing is the most debated and litigated area of collective administration worldwide (Sinacore-Guinn 1993). In 1993 the Irish Music Rights Organisation paid out more than IR£47,000 in legal expenses (Curran 1994). By 1999 IMRO’s legal, collection and professional fees came to IR£476,258, a rise from IR£413,453 the previous year. If someone refuses to pay for an IMRO licence when approached, then the organisation takes recourse to the Circuit Court. If a licensing agreement has been contracted but royalties are not paid, then the ‘music user’ is sued by the Irish Music Rights Organisation as a commercial debtor. The use of debt-collection agencies is standard practice for IMRO as the last attempt at resolution before more substantial coercion. The use of persuasion is preferable for the organisation, so significant efforts are made to convince users of the necessity for proper licensing. Often a performing rights society will undertake cultural activities, programs, and sponsorships in order to encourage the creation of new works, educate people as to the nature of creative rights, and garner support for those rights. The Irish Music Rights Organisation is very active in this regard. Such activities also perform the obvious functions of brand recognition and public relations.

[ii] According to the Irish Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000, “copyright is a property right whereby, subject to this Act, the owner of the copyright in any work may undertake or authorise other persons in relation to that work to undertake certain acts in the State, being acts which are designated by this Act as acts restricted by copyright in a work of that description” (17.1). Copyright, then, is a set of prescriptions on the actions of others in relation to a “literary or artistic work” which control what can or cannot be done by other people in relation to that “work”. According to the Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000 (4.37), the owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to undertake, or authorise others to undertake, all or any of the “acts restricted by copyright”. A person is understood to infringe the copyright in a work if they undertake or authorise another to undertake any of these acts without the licence of the copyright owner. The acts restricted by copyright are as follows:

(a) to copy the work;
(b) to make the work available to the public;
(c) to make an adaptation of the work or to undertake either (a) or (b) in relation to an adaptation.

The “performing right”, although not specifically mentioned in the Copyright and Related Rights Act, is generally understood to pertain to (b), making a work available to the public. If the act of copying is the first act which requires authorization, then the second is the act of public performance: “The right to control this act of public performance is of interest not only to the owners of copyright in works originally designed for public performance. It is of interest also to the owners of copyright, and to persons authorized by them, when others may wish to arrange the public performance of works originally intended to be used by being reproduced and published” (WIPO 1997b:155). This ‘performance’ is often assumed (without much discussion) to be at least analogous to copying. This includes performing, showing or playing a copy of the work in public; broadcasting a copy of the work in public; including a copy of the work in a cable programme service; issuing copies of the work to the public; renting copies of the work; or, lending copies of the work without the payment of remuneration to the owner of the copyright in the work. Performing rights are statutory, that is, they exist solely and exclusively by virtue of the laws that create and recognize them (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:14).

[iii] “The Oireachtas or National Parliament consists of the President, a House of Representatives (Dáil Éireann) and a Senate (Seanad Éireann). The Dáil, consisting of 166 members, is elected by adult suffrage on the Single Transferable vote system in constituencies of 3, 4 or 5 members. Of the 60 members of the Senate, 11 are nominated by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), 6 are elected by the universities and the remaining 43 are elected from 5 panels of candidates established on a vocational basis, representing the following public services and interests: (1) national language and culture, literature, art, education and such professional interests as may be defined by law for the purpose of this panel; (2) agricultural and allied interests, and fisheries; (3) labour, whether organized or unorganized; (4) industry and commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture; (5) public adminstration and social services, including voluntary social activities. The electing body comprises members of the Dáil, Senate, county boroughs and county councils” (B. Turner 2000:439).

[iv] Fianna Fáil is the republican nationalist political party in the Republic of Ireland.

[v] A similarly public outcry opposed the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ decision in the Summer of 1996 to approach Girl Scout Camps in the United States for performance royalty licences. The Wall Street Journal reported that ASCAP had informed camps across the U.S. that they must pay licence fees to use any of the four million copyrighted songs written or published by ASCAP’s 68,000 members. SESAC, another performing rights organisation, also announced their intention to ask camps for royalties. Rather than risk lawsuits, many camps were provoked into excluding copyrighted songs from their activities. The Wall Street Journal article left the enduring image of 214 Girl Scouts at the Diablo Day Camp 3 p.m. sing-along, learning the Macarena dance: “Keeping time by slapping their hands across their arms and hips, they jiggle, hop and stomp. They spin, wiggle and shake. They bounce for two minutes. In silence” (Bannon 1996).

[vi] As early, relatively speaking, as November 1993, IMRO had secured a licensing agreement with the Licensed Vintners’ Association (LVA), which represented publicans in the Dublin area (Lyons 1999).

[vii] ‘Sessions’ can be adequately or inadequately described, but never adequately defined, for the term ‘session’ can now be used as a label for any context in which two or more musicians or singers are gathered in social activity. In The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, Colin Hamilton describes a session as: “A loose association of musicians who meet, generally, but not always, in a pub to play an unpredetermined selection, mainly of dance music, but sometimes with solo pieces such as slow airs or songs. There will be one or more ‘core’ musicians, and others who are less regular” (1999:345). Scholars such as Hamilton (1977), and Vaysse (1996), have noted that the character of each ‘session’ ultimately arises from the personalities and social interaction of those engaged in the activity. In this sense, the meaning of the ‘term’ session can only really be adequately accounted for by looking to the particular circumstances implied by those who use the term. Some would look to the metaphor of casual conversation to characterise the musical activity taking place in what they would term a ‘session’: “Going to the pub, it’s just like going for a drink and telling stories, or telling jokes or whatever. We’re just telling tunes” (J. McCarthy quoted in Vaysse 1996:165). This view would be consistent with the view of Foy who, half-jokingly, describes a ‘session’ as:

… a gathering of Irish traditional musicians for the purpose of celebrating their common interest in the music by playing it together in a relaxed, informal setting, while in the process generally beefing up the mystical cultural mantra that hums along uninterruptedly beneath all manifestations of Irishness worldwide … an elaborate excuse for getting out of the house and spending an evening with friends over a few pints of beer (1999: 12-13).

Perhaps the most important word in this description, for the purposes of this article, is “beer”. A detailed examination of relatively recent manifestations of the relationship between public houses and the “traditional session” is beyond the scope of this thesis, but this has already been explored in the works of Laurence Vaysse (1996), Colin Hamilton (1977), Hazel Fairbairn (1993), and Moya Kneafsey (2002).[vii] To date, however, Reg Hall (1995) is the only person to undertake a detailed historical investigation of this type of music-making in pubs before this date.[vii] Interestingly, Hall’s study focuses on an English context. In a complex overview, Hall shows that among Irish immigrants in London such music-making was to be found in the local Irish pubs by the 1940s. Landlords who tolerated musicians carefully negotiated licensing laws that allowed only two musicians at a time, and, “As musicians became confident in their new surroundings and as publicans realised their music-making attracted custom, the one-off, risky session became institutionalised as a regular weekly event, expected and looked forward to by musicians, landlord and customers alike” (1995:5). As sessions became a regular occurrence in London pubs during the early 1950s a shift occurred: “it became common for landlords to pay two or three musicians for a session. The established practice of other musicians joining in was unchanged, and there was no embarrassment about some being paid and others not” (1995:7). Vaysse records that in Ireland payment for the ‘anchoring’ of sessions has really only become frequent since the 1970s (1996:86). As Hamilton notes:

As the session became a standard aspect of Irish musical life, publicans, keen to have their bars known as centres of good music, began, from around the middle of the 1970s, to pay one or two musicians to turn up on a regular night, to ensure that a session would happen. If this ‘seeding’ worked, the publican was guaranteed a regular core of perhaps half a dozen musicians at a small cost. Almost all the current regular sessions are based on this principle, but at festivals and other like events, sessions are still normally impromptu and non-commercial (1999:345).

As Fairbairn has found, however, payment is not always an issue, and often a more informal arrangement between musicians and publican “allows them an elevated status of desirable clients, rather than that of employees. This means that the landlord is beholden to the musicians, he knowns that the music attracts custom, but has no contractual security. In this way the musicians ensure good treatment” (1993:159). There are certainly some publicans with a personal fondness for particular musicians, and, indeed, with an interest and investment in what they consider ‘traditional music’. These ‘landlords’ are often well-known and well-loved, and are often musicians or singers themselves. Often the relationship with a publican is nondescript, but functional. Hamilton notes that “Even in cases where the host provides no encouragement to the players in the way of money or free drink, he at least provides a place for them to play” (1977:49). Many publicans, however, maintain a relationship with musicians that is at best business-like, and at worst testy and volatile. One city publican, for example, barred so many musicians from entering his pub during the 1990s that those nominated for prohibition gained a certain credibility among fellow musicians. That particular publican now runs a disco bar.

[viii] Why was the issue of ‘traditional sessions’ brought into the dispute at all? Ultimately, as mentioned earlier, the aim of the Vintner Federation’s negotiations with the Irish Music Rights Organisation was to reduce the level of tariffs for performing royalty blanket licences. Many publicans felt that the issue of ‘traditional sessions’ could lead to a reduction in payments for licences. It was assumed that the ‘use’ of ‘traditional music’ or the hosting of ‘traditional sessions’ were qualitatively different from other ‘uses’ of music. Two claims were made by publicans. The first was that they shouldn’t have to pay performance royalties for ‘traditional sessions’ at all. The second was that ‘traditional sessions’ shouldn’t be charged as much as other musical events.

The first claim made by publicans stemmed from the assumption that music that was considered ‘traditional’ was automatically ‘non-copyright’. This ran along the same lines as a much-repeated exclamation I have regularly encountered in conversation: “But there is no copyright in traditional music!” The answer that the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation offered to this argument was the following, from a letter to a publican:

I wish to explain that our interest lies in the public performance of copyright music and as traditional does not automatically mean non-copyright we are therefore pursuing royalties with you for these performances.

There are two ways in which this line from IMRO may be interpreted. One is to assume that the word ‘traditional’ refers to anything that for all intents and purposes ‘sounds traditional’, that is, sonic forms which seem to conform to the genre-limitations of what, in the opinion of the IMRO representative or the publican, is commonly considered to be ‘traditional music’. The other is to assume that the representative of the Irish Music Rights Organisation is equating ‘traditional’ with ‘anonymous’ and, hence, with ‘public domain’. In this scenario the IMRO representative would be referring to the practice in which some musicians engage in copyrighting ‘arrangements’ of ‘traditional’, understood as ‘public domain’, tunes or songs. They thereby secure a 100% performance royalty for any performance of the arrangement which they have recorded in some form, and, importantly, which they have registered with IMRO or some other performing right organisation. Every time they or someone else plays that ‘arrangement’, they are due a royalty. By contracting with IMRO for a blanket licence, the publican gains permission for the ‘use’ of the worldwide repertoire of copyrighted material. The onus, then, was on each publican to prove that not one copyrighted work or copyrighted arrangement of a ‘public domain’ work was ‘used’ on whichever night might be in question. This was an impossible task for publicans. They had no way of predicting or prescribing what might be played or sung after they had paid for the blanket licence in advance. Also, it was unlikely that they would bother to record and classify each incidence of music or song on the nights in question in order eventually to show that no copyrighted material was ‘used’. It was easier to pay the few extra pounds for the tariff.

The second claim, that ‘traditional sessions’ shouldn’t be charged as much as other musical events, stemmed from the understanding that the majority of tunes played or songs sung at ‘traditional sessions’ were ‘traditional’, implying that they were therefore ‘anonymous’, therefore ‘public domain’, and that therefore a reduction in the amount paid could be justified. It was also argued that a standard tariff for ‘sessions’ did not discriminate between different premises and the vast range of social contexts to be found in pubs. Vallely quotes the then Vintners’ Federation Chairman, Tadhg O’Sullivan, as saying:

The pub session is not full-blooded, public entertainment, and players’ arrangements are not new tunes … and anyway, the way that IMRO levies charges, why should a Kerry pub that has only a handful of customers at a session for the whole winter be obliged to pay the same as a similar premises in Dublin that is packed the year round? (quoted in Vallely 1997).

Again, with both blanket licences and the practice of copyrighting ‘arrangements’, there was no need for IMRO to concede a reduction in tariffs on this account, at least not on the basis of the publicans’ reasoning. It was interesting that an issue was made of ‘traditional music’ at all, or that the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation were drawn into a discussion concerning it. If one were to follow the logic dictated by copyright there should have been no distinction drawn between one type of music and another on the basis of genre (see WIPO 1997b). Within the logic of copyright discourse a ‘work’ has either been copyrighted or it has not, is either in copyright or is not. If the status of a ‘work’ is in question, genre should not enter into the issue, in the same way that aesthetic worth should not be taken into consideration for a work’s originality requirement (Sherman 1995). Concessions, however, were granted to publicans, on a number of occasions.[viii]

The ‘session issue’ was arguably, then, only brought into negotiations by the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) in order to seek further reductions on the blanket licensing tariffs which they were contesting with the Irish Music Rights Organisation.

[ix] As Terry Eagleton (1999) has noted, the word ‘crack’ or ‘craic’ is ‘rapidly approaching the status of ‘begorrah’. Most likely of Anglo-saxon rather than Gaelic etymology, the term most commonly refers in Ireland to an atmosphere of comfortable and pervasive conviviality, a complete absence of distrust in pleasant, relaxed, and relaxing company, most likely among friends. Heightened euphoria is not a necessary requirement. Those who wish to understand, participate in or experience ‘crack’ or ‘craic’ must commit themselves to its creation. Ciarán Carson indulges in a digression on the subject during his book Last Night’s Fun: “‘crack’… popularly and recently Gaelicised as craic and advertised in countless retro-renovated bars throughout the land, as in ‘Live Ceol [Music], Sandwiches and Craic’. Non Irish speakers in particular will insist on its ancient Gaelic lineage and will laboriously enunciate this shibboleth to foreigners who take it for a pharmacological rather than a social high. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary dates crack, ‘chat, talk of the news’, to 1450” (1996:83). Carson suggests that ‘crack’ as a term was, until fairly recently, primarily confined to the North of Ireland.

[x] It’s really only in the last ten years that the issue of copyright has become familiar to people in ‘traditional’ social circles. Before then it was of interest mainly to collectors and archivists, and to the commercially-viable performers who always seemed to learn more about copyright in the aftermath of a shady deal than they ever knew going into one. But even then, it wasn’t of any major concern to most people. As Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, remembers it: “One had heard various stories, say, about how Planxty were ripped off, and they weren’t making any money from their own records and that kind of thing, but that was so far removed from the experience of most people involved in traditional music. It was interesting but that was all it was. It wasn’t personally pertinent” (Personal interview, Dublin, 2000).

[xi] You can find IRTRAD-L at http://listserv.heanet.ie

[xii] The reasons that a publican might have for closing down a session are many and varied, and musicians would be as likely to find as many reasons to move on to another venue. Regular reasons include personalty clashes, changes to new ownership less appreciative of ‘traditional music’, or changes in the personality of an upwardly-mobile ‘local’ that gets transformed into a spacious and trendy ‘superpub’ in a bid to maximize income. Hosting a session might simply not be financially viable. A restaurant proprietor in Galway once expressed surprise to me, not that musicians were paid so little for a session, but that they were paid so much. Apparently, she felt, to offset the expense of musicians a publican would have to sell three times as much in value of alcohol to make it worth their while. For smaller pubs this is unlikely to happen. This would suggest either that musicians in these smaller venues would be unlikely to be paid. It might also suggest that any ‘traditional’ musical activity in these pubs at all is an indication that neither musicians or publican are particularly interested in framing the ‘session’ in terms of financial potential.

[xiii] According to one musician, the only direct knock-on effect of IMRO’s licensing demands on sessions was that many publicans placed a moratorium on new sessions. Even this attitude lasted for only a short period, however, and, following the VFI agreement, things pretty much returned to normal (Personal interview, Cork, 2001).

[xiv] An overview of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann has already been provided by Henry (1989) and Vallely (1999a). A number of key points will be here drawn from these accounts, and from examination of the CCÉ Constitution (CCÉ 1996). The constitution of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann lays claim to nondenominational and nonpolitical status. The constitution indicates that membership is open to all who sympathise with the aims and objectives of the organisation, and who undertake to abide by its Constitution and Rules. Those whose actions are interpreted as being in opposition to the aims of the organisation are liable to suffer expulsion. The specific goals of the organisation, set forth in the constitution, are as follows:

1. To promote Irish Traditional Music in all its forms;
2. To restore the playing of the Harp and Uilleann Pipes in the National life of Ireland;
3. To promote Irish Traditional Dancing;
4. To foster and promote the Irish language at all times;
5. To create a closer bond among all lovers of Irish music;
6. To cooperate with all bodies working for the restoration of Irish Culture;
7. To establish Branches throughout the country and abroad to achieve the foregoing aims and objects (CCÉ 1996:3-5).

There are reportedly over 400 branches of the organisation in Ireland and internationally. The primary roles of these branches are the recruitment of new members and the teaching of Irish traditional music and dance. A series of competitions are held every year on a pyramidal county, provincial and national basis. The final competition is an annual festival called Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, or All-Ireland Fleadh, which draws competitors from an international catchment who have qualified from earlier rounds.

Administrative levels of the organisation include the branches, the county boards, and the provincial councils, all of which are overseen by a central exective council (CEC), based in Dublin. The CEC has a president, general secretary, five vice-chairpersons, a national treasurer, a national registrar, a competitions officer, a music officer, a public relations officer, and two delegates from each provincial council. Permanent trustees are appointed by the CEC. They are responsible for instituting any criminal or civil proceedings on the organisation’s behalf. The property of the organisation is vested in the trustees. The Central Executive council meets three times a year to direct the policy of the organisation and to decide on the venue for the All-Ireland Fleadh. Once a year a congress is held, which is attended by the members of the central executive council, two delegates from each branch, and two delegates from each county board.

[xv] In the editorial of the second issue of Treoir, 1998, it was stated: “At the Stockholm conference there was widespread concern at the possibility of a nation’s store of traditional music falling into private commercial hands as has already happened in some countries. This has obvious connotations for Ireland” (Ó Murchú 1998). What those connotations might be was not stated.

[xvi] “Now there’d be a very small section of musicians, and I’d say it would be very small, and particularly in more recent times, may see some advantage in a copyright-type situation but it raises huge questions, then, for the whole body of Irish traditional musicians” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xvii] “Now obviously a newly composed song could be copyrighted, if that is the wish of the author. Our hope would be that they wouldn’t do that, that they would contribute that song to the corpus of traditional music like they themselves had got their songs from previous generations. We’d be looking for a degree of generosity there” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xviii] “But once it becomes widely known through debate as to what the intention is, then I think yes there will be alarm bells set off in the minds of a lot of musicians each time they go to play a tune, whether they’re playing in a pub, or in a concert, or in a session, I think they’re going to say, ‘we can play the first two reels, but we can’t play the third reel’. Now you can see what that will do to music making” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xix] “I think it’s still vital that the individual musician feels free to hear a tune or tape it and replay it and not be wondering whether somebody is policing them and whether there’s a royalty involved. I think IMRO have to alter the equation. They tell us they have, IMRO are telling us there’s no danger to traditional music” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xx] A sliotar is a leather ball, approximately the size of a tennis ball, which is used in the game of hurling, one of Ireland’s ‘national’ sports. A sliotar can also be referred to as a “hurley ball”. To “hurl a sliotar” is to hit the ball with a hurling stick (camán), which stands waist-high and is normally made of ash.

[xxi] This apparently did not stem the flow of opposition, however. In a representation to the Irish Senate in June 1998, Labhrás Ó Murchú likened the “inherent dangers in copyright law” to the decree by “a Queen of England” which called for all pipers and harpists to be hanged. This refers to a request made by Elizabeth I to Lord Barrymore to “hang the harpers wherever found” (see Thuente 1994).

[xxii] By October of 1999 the IMRO Members Newsletter extended the remit of the agreement in paradoxically more vague and more specific terms: “Under the agreement IMRO will provide sponsorship for various events and will make available its experts for lectures and curriculum design. CCE [sic.], in return, will support IMRO and its activities both nationally and internationally” (IMRO 1999a).

[xxiii] “Clearly, for pure traditional music which is, by definition, without an author, and for which the question of originality cannot arise, there is no reason primary copyright should attach to it at all. Copyright considerations would not affect the right of players to play music which is part of a genuine traditional community resource and over which no primary copyright interest can exist. … With regards to how disputes in this grey area might be avoided, I believe that interested parties, both in respect of traditional music and of music copyright, have a serious responsibility to behave sensibly and reasonably towards each other in asserting their respective rights. In this context, I welcome the recent demarcation agreement between Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the Irish Music Rights Organisation which should go a long way to ensuring that unnecessary and damaging disputes on such issues within the music community are avoided” (Kitt 1999:15).

[xxiv] The claim to unanimity was patently untrue, as some dissension had been voiced at the meeting, and the ‘ongoing discussions’ between the organisations primarily meant that Labhrás Ó Murchú was still communicating with officials from the Irish Music Rights Organisation.

[xxv] An interesting development in the discourse available to Treoir readers in this article was the presence of acronyms, phrases, and taxonomy more familiar to the members of IMRO than the members of Comhaltas. Using the rhetoric of ‘protection’, ‘challenge’ and ‘opportunity’ , in the space of three short paragraphs the article managed to shore up the joint activities of CCÉ and IMRO with the legitimating support of the WTO (World Trade Organisation) intellectual property negotiations, the EU (European Union) Rental and Lending Directive, and of Comhaltas members in the US and the UK. “The possibilities,” it reported, “of Comhaltas members in the US and the UK who create new music in these territories joining IMRO is at an advanced stage [sic.]” (CCÉ 2000).

[xxvi] The fact that this was simply a rhetorical phrase to paper over conceptual cracks and stop people asking questions, was certainly not a point that any of those leading the meeting were willing to dwell on. It remains a catchy phrase that doesn’t really change anything as far as copyright or legislation is concerned.

[xxvii] I am reminded of the words of poet John Clare, that “enclosure had a terrible but instructive visibility” (cited in E. P. Thompson 1993:180).

Humanising Music and Copyright

“… copyright stands as an unknown continent that music researchers must explore …” (Franco Fabbri 1993:159). 

“[Clearing the samples] is very tedious. We have to sit there and basically break out every single component of every track that we do and make a list of the sources for everything. We go through every little blip of sound and decide what’s significant enough that we need to contact the owner. From there, it’s a whole bunch of lawyer craziness” (Michael Diamond of The Beastie Boys, in Steuer 2004:186).

 “It is becoming increasingly harder to be an ethnomusicologist with a tape recorder today than it used to be because people are always suspicious, even when we have no commercial intentions”  (Anthony Seeger, cited in Lin-Eftekhar 2002).

In the disciplines of Ethnomusicology, Musicology, and Popular Music Studies, it’s hard to operate in ignorance or apathy about “music and copyright” anymore (see Frith and Marshall, eds. 2004). The disciplinary imperatives of permission contracts potentially foster and facilitate a relational architecture of distrust as we engage with people in our fieldwork. Copyright concerns are apparently having to become increasingly important to both ourselves and the people we work with. Confusion over what does or does not constitute “fair use” or “fair dealing” in relation to copyright restrictions reminds us of the quiet behavioral gravity of normative legal instruments in our research and teaching. It tends to be supremely important to us now that we protect “stuff” as we seek to respect people … and obey the Law.

Law, intellectual property, and copyright have, in only a few years, assumed unprecedented prominence as themes in our lives. Rosemary Coombe notes that what people imagine “the law says” may be a shaping force in the practices of our lives, even though the standards and sanctions involved may be self-imposed or misinformed: “People’s anticipations of law (however reasonable, ill informed, mythical, or even paranoid) may actually shape law and the property rights it protects” (1998:9). Often what is most important is not so much the letter of the law as people’s understanding of it, and our reactions to legal meanings based on that understanding. For example, how many of us respond to the declaration of copyright restrictions in university libraries with detailed study of the law? How many of us simply ‘get with the program’ in an attitude of benign obedience, ignorant of legislation and deferent to restriction? Law, then, can often be understood as “a … diffuse and pervasive force shaping social consciousness and behavior” (12). Neither just a collection of rules, nor a collection of social effects, law can be understood, as “a complex interpretive activity, a practice of encoding and decoding social meaning that merges imperceptibly with rhetoric, ideology, “common sense,” economic argument (of both a highly theoretical and a seat-of-the-pants kind), with social stereotype, narrative cliché and political theory of every level from high abstraction to civics class chant” (Boyle 1996:14).

I write this in my capacity as an ethnomusicologist. In 1992 the field of Ethnomusicology was criticized from within for failing to recognize the need for substantial practical and theoretical engagement with issues of law, and specifically with issues of “music and copyright.” Anthony Seeger noted a “theoretical predisposition to ignore juridical concepts related to music in our research, an uncritical (and perhaps unconscious) re-elaboration of the concepts of twentieth century copyright law in our writings, and a lack of intellectual engagement with the globalization of the world’s economy and its implications for the objects of our research” (1992:345-346). By neglecting these issues, Seeger stated, ethnomusicologists were impoverishing their discipline. They would increasingly find it difficult to contribute significantly to dialogue about musical practices which were increasingly being shaped by the very processes that ethnomusicologists seemed to be ignoring. In 1993, Franco Fabbri was able to note that “copyright stands as an unknown continent that music researchers must explore” (159). Seeger again, in 1996, reiterated the failures of musicologists and ethnomusicologists to consider the implications of local, regional, national, and international legislation for their research in the face of “the transformation of all music to potentially for-profit “intellectual property” throughout the world” (88). He argued that this academic negligence ran the risk of compromising the relationships that ethnomusicologists so delicately foster while doing fieldwork: “Our failure to act both intellectually and practically in this area can only vitiate our analyses, damage our reputations, and make us suspect in the communities in which we wish to work” (ibid.).

Any failure in this regard would not be without consequence. Law, legal doctrine, legal practice, and, by association, the role, activities, and expansion of bodies such as The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) continue to play a vital role in the production and generation of meaning, power, and knowledge in the social interactions of our lives. By accepting the meanings that structure discourses of law, intellectual property, and copyright, we also allow those same meanings to structure our expectations and our social relationships. Scholars working within the Anthropology of Law (see, for example, Falk Moore, ed. 2004; Darian-Smith, ed. 2006; Donovan and Anderson 2006), the Sociology of Law (see, for example, Cotterrell 1984; Aubert, ed. 1969) and Critical Legal Theory (see, for example, Hutchinson, ed. 1989; Fitzpatrick and Hunt, eds. 1987) have drawn attention to these processes. Legislation, in any jurisdiction, consists of a set of prescriptions which specify the way in which legal subjects ought to behave. Law thus assumes a very palpable presence in our lives.

Research in the area of “music and copyright” can only be enriched by humanised and humanising perspectives. Despite the exponential growth of this increasingly contentious, and increasingly bizarre area of study, to a large extent discussion continues to stagnate in and around issues of access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection. From digital file-sharing to folk and traditional musics, “Who owns the music?” has become the prime question, with “How do we protect the music?” coming a close second. “What are we allowed to do with the music?” and “Where does the money go?” follow close behind. Research, then, has been dominated by the exegesis of litigation and the analysis of economic conditions, as people trace the movement and management of ‘things’, and follow the money. That can be very important, but scholarly debate seems largely to have stalled as a series of descriptive discussions about the management of legally-constituted musical resources rather than tending towards more explanatory approaches that might allow us to understand the impact of discourses and practices of intellectual property within the broader qualitative, social, and emotional dimensions of musical life. The ‘stuff’ becomes all important, people’s personal stories tend to be somewhat less so.

This explanatory weakness, this overwhelming emphasis on commodity transaction, would be for many deeply redolent of the general character of orthodox legal discourses. The apparent separation of law and, in particular, legal doctrine from the contingencies of social and political life is, in fact, one of the prime assertions of orthodox legal theory and one of the most influential foundations of legal practice (Hutchinson, ed. 1989; Fitzpatrick and Hunt, eds. 1987). For many people, law, the doctrines of law, the workings of law, the institutions of law, the concepts of law, seem to be separate from, and only tangentially relevant to, the everyday interactions of their lives. This is largely because law, and practices legitimated by law, are often characterised by specialist legal practitioners as autonomous, self-sufficient, value-free and politically-neutral (Blomley 1994), a strategy referred to by critics as “legal closure”.

As we enact the discourses and practices of copyright and intellectual property in our work, we can be assured that, in very practical ways, the workings of law are not ‘neutral’. Unger would argue that the great power of law is that “it enforces, reflects, constitutes, and legitimizes dominant social and power relations without a need for or the appearance of control from outside and by means of social actors who largely believe in their own neutrality and the myth of legal reasoning” (1986:5). As ethnomusicologists we have this “power of law” at our disposal insofar as we claim it and that claim is accepted by others as valid. One of the achievements of strategies of the aforementioned process of “legal closure” is that “The rule of law … appears rational, benign, and necessary” (Blomley 1994:9). As Peter Jazsi has commented: “The whole structure … is grounded on an uncritical belief in the existence of a distinct and privileged category of activity, that generates products of special social value, entitling the practitioners (the “authors”) to unique rewards” (1991:466).

Law, for the most part, then, “appears as an arcane world of professionalism centered on a body of esoteric knowledge which is intimidating to the uninitiated in its bulk and obscurity” (Cotterrell 1984:17). This is perhaps especially the case for copyright discourses, a complex nexus of legal, economic, and literary doctrinal orthodoxies sustained by a declaratively erudite register of concepts and productive inclinations: property, rights, authorship, public and private interest, public and private space, utility, consumption, production, incentives, possessive individualism, originality, creativity, freedom, and progress. When esoteric knowledges of music scholarship, always-already sustained by many of the same Euro-American orthodoxies, are added to the mix the result can be a heady maelstrom of mutually-reinforcing and profoundly-abstract discourses of obedience, regulation, and resource management. Little wonder that people might consider “music and copyright” to have little relevance to the personal politics of their everyday lives. The gravity of legal closure tends to invite political detachment, facilitated ably by enthusiastic analysis of sonic minutiae and the intricate management of musical commodities. We hardly need to turn to the likes of Marx, Lukacs, Simmel, or Weber to remind us that relationships between people can be easily and formally rendered as relationships about ‘things’ and money. The more approaches to “music and copyright” approximate a sort of musical accountancy, or an exercise in advanced legal classification, the more our attention can be quietly drawn away from the analysis of personal experience, social context, and social change.

This is important, for as the discourses and practices of law increase in technical complexity, and are deemed by many people to be more and more irrelevant to everyday concerns, they tend to intrude more and more into our lives as “increasingly detailed regulations relate [the law] more and more concretely to particular narrowly defined situations and relationships” (Cotterrell 1984:186).  Discourses and practices of intellectual property and copyright have long been associated with expansionary dynamics and with processes of accelerative commodification. Bettig (1996) would argue, for example, that it is almost impossible to separate intellectual property from its role as an instrument of commodification within capitalist systems. It has been shown that the development of capitalism and intellectual property have been concurrent (Rose 1993, Woodmansee and Jaszi 1994). The appearance in the eighteenth century of ‘things of the mind’ as transferable articles of property matured simultaneously with the capitalist system (Jaszi 1991). It is no coincidence, then, that an accelerative, commodifying, expansionary logic should infuse the discourses and practices of intellectual property. But effective legal closure and an overriding emphasis on commodity management both serve to depoliticize the climate. They systematically occlude particular characters of personal experience, social context, and social change, immunizing against critique of the expansionary character and doctrinal representations of law and legal practice by allowing both expansion and doctrine to remain unremarkable, invisible, and analytically unavailable.

Discourses of commodity management are fostered and facilitated by the persistence of the “musical work” as a philosophical and legal concept. The concept provides much to support and little to challenge resource-management models in music and copyright studies. In recent years, sustained attention has been drawn to various discursive and philosophical constructions of the “musical work” by Lydia Goehr (1992, 2000), Ingrid Monson (1996), Michael Talbot et al (2000) and many others.[ii] In discursive practice, the musical work remains for many the central resource, the central transactable commodity of “music and copyright” discourse. I don’t wish to declare “the musical work” or considerations of access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection irrelevant or unimportant. My emphasis, indeed, is a direct response to the real importance of these themes in “music and copyright” discourses. Access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection remain vital themes with which to make sense of the management of works as “musical resources”, and they remain crucial concerns in the combination and recombination of sonic motifs, phrases, and tunes. Such ways of making sense of things matter to many people. As Reinhard Strohm notes, for example, “The work-concept … is as ‘real’ as any aesthetic idea can be, and many generations of musicians have believed in it” (Strohm 2000:128). Often taking someone to court in direct adversarial engagement over the “things”, the “works”, might be the only obvious option that people have available to them in the context of litigation (see Soocher 1998). From a strictly legal standpoint it sometimes seems there is no other way to make sense of the issues. What I do seek to do is to underline, however, that, as analysts, we can do better. We can supplement or even supercede this narrow, enclosing, and often dehumanising focus on property, rights, musical works, and sonic form. We can move towards analysis that is more socially-sensitive to the “absences and inaudibilities in contemporary cultural spheres” (Coombe 1998:9), more sensitive to particular characters of personal experience, social context, and social change.

As copyright and intellectual property become more and more familiar aspects of discursive and musical landscapes through increasingly technological, standardized, specialist, universalised, and universalising practices, those same practices are increasingly regarded as legitimate, or, at least, unremarkable. The solid status of copyright and the justifications for all practices relating to copyright are taken for granted by many of us not only as the way things are and the ways things ought to be, but as the way things must be. Increasingly, as music scholars we often find ourselves in climates where we place the discourses and practices of intellectual property and copyright beyond debate, acquiescing, perhaps unknowingly, perhaps enthusiastically, to rather grandiose narratives of progress, authorship, necessity, and inevitability. In small ways, in our interactions with colleagues, students, and the people we work with in the field, the dictates of legal doctrine are increasingly taken as given, if not absolute. As this happens, the details and internal complexities of doctrine, the features of sonic form, and the politics of ownership can become the focus of inquiry rather than the social, political, personal consequences of acquiescence to doctrine as doctrine. When we can so easily allow the influence of absolutes to cascade throughout our lives, it is important that the interpretive practices of law be deconstructed and revealed as interpretive practices. Hardened narratives of law, intellectual property, and copyright suffuse the practices of intellectual property organizations, universities, academic departments, and libraries. From a scholar’s perspective it is perhaps more helpful to consider that the orthodoxies of “music and copyright,” whether “legal” or “musical,” do not simply reflect “the nature of things.”

It is important to remember that every situation concerning disputes about “music and copyright” serves as a nexus for personal stories and an opportunity for understanding complex emotions, meanings, and relationships of power, authority, and resistance. Focusing on the specificities of history and on the particularities of circumstance allow us to disclose social and political aspects of “music and copyright” debates as, importantly, always-already humanized encounters.  Legal structures are not just to be found in legislation and the workaday rhetoric of lawyers. Insofar as music scholars also acquiesce to the discourses and practices of intellectual property and copyright, or work unquestioning with those who do, we contribute to the privileging of the legal as a key structuring value in the ways in which we relate to each other.

Humanising approaches to “music and copyright”, for me, means challenging legal closure to look at the broader social and political context of debates about access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection, in terms of ‘what is going on’; in terms of particular experiences of authority and power dynamics in particular situations: What’s important, and to whom? Who gets to say? Who is dealing with whom and on what terms? Who is claiming what, and how do they justify or legitimate what they say? How do people feel about what is going on? How do people respond in different ways to situations in which copyright is an abiding concern? What principles are people willing to defend? Is there a point beyond which people in a situation feel unable to challenge the status quo on account of the pressures and certitudes of necessity and inevitability, market and law, national and international government? Is there more at stake than scrambles over who owns what and how much we will allow others to do? By accepting copyright, what might we be allowing to happen to the character of our relationships with each other? To ask such questions is to assume a position of some skepticism with regard to claims that are often made to the natural and unchallengeable status of copyright law. It is helpful to challenge those ideas which are accepted as ‘given’, self-evident, ‘common sense’, ideas that are “so obvious that the question of their origin may seem unreal because to not accept them seems unthinkable” (Cotterrell 1984:121). It is precisely because ideas associated with law are largely unquestioned that they must be examined as having developed in and through particular social formations and social practices.

It behoves us to take responsibility for our own education with respect to copyright law and its relevance to the practices of Ethnomusicology, Musicology, and Popular Music Studies. As R. M. Cover has written: “Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live” (1983:4-5).


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Ronald V. Bettig. 1996. Copyrighting Culture: The Political Economy of Intellectual Property. Boulder: Westview Press.

Nicolas K. Blomley. 1994. Law, Space, and the Geographies of Power. New York: The Guilford Press.

James Boyle. 1996. Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Seán Burke, ed. 1995. Authorship, From Plato to the Postmodern: a Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Nicholas Cook, “Between Process and Product: Music and/as Performance”, MTO Music Theory Online,  Volume 7, Number 2, April 2001 URL: http://www.societymusictheory.org/mto/issues/mto.01.7.2/mto.01.7.2.cook_essay.html

Rosemary J. Coombe. 1998. The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties. Durham: Duke University Press.

Roger Cotterrell. 1984. The Sociology of Law: An Introduction. London: Butterworths.

R. M. Cover. 1983. “Nomos and Narrative.” Harvard Law Review 97(4):4-68.

Ronan Deazley. 2004. On the Origin of the Right to Copy: Charting the Movement of Copyright Law in Eighteenth Century Britain (1695-1775). Oxford: Hart Publishing.

Yehezkel Dror. 1969. “Law and Social Change.” In Vilhelm Aubert, ed. Sociology of Law. 90-99. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Franco Fabbri. 1993. “Copyright: The Dark Side of the Music Business.” In Music and Copyright. Simon Frith, ed. 159-63. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Steven Feld. 2000. “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music.” Public Culture 12(1):145-172.

Peter Fitzpatrick and Alan Hunt, eds. 1987. Critical Legal Studies. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jane L. Florine. 2001. Cuarteto Music and Dancing from Argentina: In Search of the Tunga-Tunga in Córdoba. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Simon Frith and Lee Marshall, eds. 2004. Music and Copyright. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Jane M. Gaines. 1991. Contested Culture: The Image, The Voice, and The Law. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Reebee Garofalo. 1997. Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Lydia Goehr. 1992. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
—. 2000. “‘On the Problems of Dating’ or ‘Looking Backward and Forward with Strohm’.” In The Musical Work: Reality or Invention? Michael Talbot, ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Kenneth G. Gourlay. 1978. “Towards a Reassessment of the Ethnomusicologist’s Role in Research.” Ethnomusicology 22(1):1-35.
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Nancy Guy. 2002. “Trafficking in Taiwan Aboriginal Voices.” In Handle with Care: Ownership and Control of Ethnographic Materials. Sjoerd R. Jaarsma, ed. 195-209. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
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Debora J. Halbert. 1999. Intellectual Property in the Information Age: The Politics of Expanding Ownership Rights. Westport, Connecticut and London: Quorum Books.

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Peter Jaszi. 1991. “Towards a Theory of Copyright: The Metamorphoses of “Authorship”.” Duke Law Journal 1991(1991):455-502.
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Anthony McCann. 2001. “All That is Not Given is Lost: Irish Traditional Music, Copyright, and Common Property.” Ethnomusicology 45(1):89-106.
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Ingrid Monson. 1996. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mark Rose. 1993. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

David Saunders. 1992. Authorship and Copyright. London: Routledge.

Anthony Seeger. 1987. “Do We Need to Remodel Ethnomusicology?” Ethnomusicology 31(3):491-495.
—. 1992. “Ethnomusicology and Music Law.” Ethnomusicology 36(3):345-359.
—. 1996. “Ethnomusicologists, Archives, Professional Organizations, and the Shifting Ethics of Intellectual Property.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 87-105.

Brad Sherman. 1995. “Appropriating The Postmodern: Copyright and the Challenge of the New.” Social and Legal Studies 4:31-54.

Christopher Small 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.

Stan Soocher. 1998. They Fought the Law: Rock Music Goes to Court. New York: Schirmer Books

Eric Steuer. 2004. “The Remix Masters.” WIRED 11:186.

Martin Stokes. 1994. “Introduction.” In Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place. Martin,Stokes, ed. 1-27. Oxford: Berg.

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Michael Talbot, ed. 2000. The Musical Work: Reality or Invention? Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

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Roberto M. Unger. 1986. The Critical Legal Studies Movement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[i] More famous, perhaps, is the work of Foucault in this regard. See Burke ed. (1995) for this and other key contributions to discussions on “authorship”, and Burke (1998) for an extended discussion of the work of Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida in this regard. A collection of essays more focused on the relationship between authorship and copyright can be found in Woodmansee and Jazsi, eds. (1994). A useful summary of various approaches to authorship and copyright can be found in Halbert (1999). For an interesting discussion of “originality” in relation to copyright see Sherman (1995). For a discussion of authorship, ownership, and intellectual property law see McLeod (2001).

[ii] In 1992 Goehr, for example, challenged the naturalized status of the work-concept in musical discourses, noting that, “speaking about music in terms of works is neither an obvious nor a necessary mode of speech, despite the lack of ability we presently seem to have to speak about music in any other way” (243).

All That Is Not Given Is Lost: Irish Traditional Music, Copyright, and Common Property

Ethnomusicology  2001, Vol. 45, No. 1

Irish music in a traditional idiom finds itself in the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand Irish traditional music has become a global phenomenon, lending its symbolic and commercial weight, replete with what Irish cultural historian Luke Gibbons calls, “the communal Prozac of the heritage industry” (1996:172), to anything from Riverdance™ to Xena,™ Warrior Princess and its ethereal glances of uilleann pipe inciden­tals. Commercially speaking, the music has never been as popular, a boon for those determined to make a living playing the music that they live by. On the other hand we find that the embedded cultural practices and val­ues that have supported the transmission and life of the music are being threatened as a result of the very embeddedness, their being taken for grant­ed, that has guaranteed their lack of articulation thus far.

The aim of this paper is twofold. Firstly, I feel it necessary to clarify the nature of the social relationships that are inextricably bound up with Irish traditional musical practice, in partial answer to Luke Gibbons’ com­ment that, “though much valuable work has been done on Irish society from the point of view of economic development, political mobilization, and administrative structures, very little has focused on culture as a set of ma­terial practices informing and constituting the social environment” (1996:10). To do this, I shall address issues of gift and commodity, ultimately concluding that grass‑roots Irish traditional music transmission rests upon an as‑yet‑unarticulated system of gift or sharing. And secondly, I believe that it is crucial that we clarify the power relations and the dynamic processes that frame those social relationships. For this purpose, I shall use certain aspects of Common Property Theory, still a very young field, with a view to highlighting the actors and signposting directions. As Michael Goldman has written,

“The commons‑a material and symbolic reality, always changing, never purely local or global, traditional or modern, and always reflect­ing the vibrant colors of its ecological, political, cultural, scientific and social character‑is not at all disappearing into the dustbin of history. To the contrary, we find that the commons are increasingly becoming a site for robust and tangible struggles . . .” (1998:14).

At the UNESCO/WIPO World Forum on the Protection of Folklore in Phuket, Thailand (April 1997), it was admitted that: “The participants were of the view that at present there is no international standard of protection for folklore and that the copyright regime is not adequate to ensure such protection” (WIPO 1997). As has been elaborated in a number of sources (McCann 1998; Mills 1996; Seeger 1996; Weiner 1987), the musical prac­tices that support traditional music transmission abide by models of creativ­ity, collaboration, and participation that together add up to the antithesis of the text‑based, individualist, and essentially capitalist nature of intellec­tual property regimes. All problems relating to copyright and neighboring rights in traditional musics can ultimately be traced back to these issues. Hence the need to develop a sui generis system of protection for traditional culture and traditional musical expression, one that grows from the nature of traditional systems as they are, rather than one imposed on them as the way they should be. The challenge we face is to attempt to reconcile these two apparently irreconcilable world views in practical terms.

The Irish Context

The last three years have seen a growing but notoriously vague aware­ness in the Irish traditional music scene of a conflict of interest that involves publicans, amateur practitioners of traditional music and song, and the performance royalties collection agency, the Irish Music Rights Organiza­tion (IMRO). This growing awareness has led to a national newspaper arti­cle proclaiming “Save the Session” (Vallely 1997). At the same time, there has arisen a public debate clouded in ambiguity and a lack of direction due to a lack of a shared lexicon or conceptual consensus and the complica­tions of the philosophical basis of copyright legislation.

A very small percentage of traditional musicians are members of the Irish Music Rights Organization (IMRO). IMRO claims the right to police traditional compositions despite being originally formed to serve the needs of commercial songwriters. IMRO claims that it only has the best interests of musicians at heart, and within its own circle of logic this is undoubted­ly true. IMRO was formed to champion the cause of commercial compos­ers and songwriters, and feels duty‑bound to extend its reach on the assump­tion that all musical practice is commodity exchange, an assumption founded on the epistemologies of neo‑classical economics.1 To diffuse grow­ing hostility among traditional musicians, and in the shadow of a develop­ing Copyright Bill in the Irish parliament, IMRO recently signed an agreement (1999)2 with the largest voluntary music body in Irish traditional music, Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann, both parties claiming, as a result of the agreement, that the “copyright‑free status of traditional music” has been secured. This does not, however, mean that the fundamental philosophi­cal issues at the heart of the conflict have been resolved, and they will most likely surface again in another form.

As Irish traditional music has increasingly entered the commercial are­na, collectors of traditional songs and tunes, and performers of traditional tunes3 are personally claiming copyright on works presumed to be in the “public domain,”4 Increasingly, however, many new compositions in tra­ditional idioms are assumed to be in the “public domain,” even though the composers can often be sourced, and many of whom are still alive. Usual­ly this is the result of laziness or an unwillingness to source the tune or song. The reluctance of traditional composers to copyright their tunes, thus leav­ing their work vulnerable to piracy, stems from a complex web of social relationships, and a recognition of a “tradition” that incorporates past, present and future generations, and is often simply a case of offering a tune up to the possibility of future anonymity.

A recent study by Carlos Salazar entitled A Sentimental Economy: Commodity and Community in Rural Ireland (1996) states, “We have seen that the farming communities of the west of Ireland are deeply inte­grated into the world market economy, and they undoubtedly participate in the individualistic and profit‑maximizing ethos that characterizes all cap­italist societies, but they still have a substantial sphere of noncommodity transactions” (1996:126). I would argue in no uncertain terms that the same can be said of Irish traditional music and the musicians that practice it. I would go further to suggest that the noncommodity aspect of Irish musi­cal practice, with both its amateur and participatory aspects, is the lifeblood, the “cultural glue” that holds the whole system together.

The Session

Undoubtedly the most popular form of Irish traditional musical activi­ty in public places5 is the “session.”6 Involving at least three people who play jigs, reels, hornpipes, planxties, and so on in heterophonic union, with the odd solo thrown in, this musical practice takes place for the most part in pubs,7 a typical “third space,”8 the site of an obvious cultural lubricant, and also in houses, although those gatherings have more the character of private parties. It has become an extremely widespread phenomenon, al­lowing at best (deliberate moral overtones) the shepherded involvement of younger or less experienced players by older and respected musicians, and is the site of most musical transmission.9 It is the site of focus for a complex system of codes and etiquettes,10 humiliations and value reinforce­ments that are distilled from the wider context of the Irish traditional scene. Many musicians involved in sessions are also professionals,11 many of them full‑time, a number of them most likely members of IMRO, but once embraced by the aura of the session, the hierarchies are of a “traditional” not a commercial nature. As is evident by the paraphrasing below, a por­tion of C. A. Gregory’s analysis of Papua New Guinea is equally applicable to a discussion of the session:

The gift economy of [the Irish instrumental session] has not been destroyed by [commercialism] but has effloresced. The labor‑time devoted to the produc­tion and exchange of things as gifts has risen rather than fallen, a change that has occurred simultaneously with the introduction of [paid sessions, commer­cial recording, and regular concert opportunities]. To understand this process, it is necessary to abandon the concept of dualism which classifies this part of the economy (e.g. urban sector) as “modern,” and that part (e.g. rural sector) as “traditional.” The fact of the matter is that the whole economy is “modern.” The gift exchange practiced in [Irish instrumental session culture] is not a pre­colonial relic but a contemporary response to contemporary conditions …. Economic activity is not a natural form of activity. It is a social act and its meaning must be understood with reference to the social relationships between people in historically specific settings. The essence of the [Irish musical] econ­omy today is ambiguity. A [tune] is now a gift, now a commodity, depending upon the social context of the transaction …. It is because of this ambiguity that the concept of dualism, with its clearly defined traditional sector, must be abandoned. (1982:115)

One of the top traditional musicians in the commercial scene has com­mented to me that there is no greater thrill than hearing one of her own tunes at a session with no‑one knowing who composed it (personal inter­view, 1997). Authorship takes a back seat as a designation of respect and cultural .capital rather than ownership. As another celebrated performer commented to me: “I mean, like, nobody owns the stuff. You can’t own this stuff’ (personal interview, 1999). But “the tune”12 in this situation has been placed in that site of ambiguity mentioned above. For IMRO the tune undoubtedly walks, talks and quacks like a commodity. For the musicians engaged in the session the tune cannot be separated out from the social and historical context of the non‑commodified musical moment, in a pro­cess of forging and acts of personal courage, where “Talent is tested. The self is risked and accomplished. Human power is restrained and focused to make the self a gift to the other, the past a gift to the future. Past and present, internal and external collapse into union” (Glassie 1995:146). There is also the widespread practice, as Gregory has identified in general terms, of de‑commodification, of tunes having been written as commercial, com­modified money‑making “works” with the cow‑bell of copyright draped around their neck, only to be transformed in the context of the session into gifts to be distributed freely among musicians in a context of tradition and community.13

The session conforms readily to the idea of a “gift cycle”: “In a gift cycle the gift is given without contract or agreement about return. And yet it does return; a circulation is set up and can be counted upon”(Hyde 1983:114). The gift is the risk of self, the tunes, the songs, the chat, the shared expe­rience, the history of personal endeavor. As another musician commented: “The music doesn’t belong to anybody, so if somebody’s trying to learn it and you can help them, it’s not yours, so it’s not like you can hold back, because it’s not yours anyway. There have been people who have come to the sessions who have been rude, and I’ve had differences with them. But if somebody is sincere and it seems like they’re trying to tap into the spirit of the music then you have to stretch your hand out to them” (per­sonal interview, 1998).14

Intellectual Property and Commodification

At this stage in history it is almost impossible to separate intellectual property from its role as an instrument of commodification within capital­ist systems (Bettig 1996). In fact, the development of capitalism and intel­lectual property have been concurrent (Rose 1993, Woodmansee and Jas­zi 1994). The appearance in the eighteenth century of things of the mind as transferable articles of property matured simultaneously with the capi­talist system (Jaszi 1992). It could be argued that the application of intel­lectual property in any circumstance assumes the a priori application of capitalism, where the production and distribution of goods depend on in­vested private cultural capital and profit‑making. If this is the case, then unlimited participation in a capitalist system, which seeks by its nature the furthermost penetration of the market, and the unbounded acceptance of intellectual property as a legal solution, impose an unnecessarily individu­alist vision. Ecologist Vandana Shiva has written:

The first restriction of Intellectual Property Rights is the shift from common rights to private rights. This excludes all kinds of knowledge, ideas, and inno­vations that take place in the “intellectual commons” . . . The second restric­tion of Intellectual Property Rights is that they are recognized only when knowl­edge and innovation generate profits, not when they meet social needs …. This immediately excludes all sectors that produce and innovate outside the indus­trial mode of organization of production. Profits and capital accumulation are recognized as the only ends to which creativity should be put. (1993:115)

Recognition that intellectual property is not going to go away15 makes it tempting to just accept that intellectual property is the lesser evil. But unchanged application of intellectual property rights carries profound implications, as Stephen Gudeman rightly points out:

In my view, the use of intellectual property rights on an international scale to compensate nonmarket economies not only raises problematic issues but pre­sents a paradox. Some people would use the legal and monetary entitlements afforded by intellectual property rights to protect and foster the local knowl­edge and innovations of a folk in order to secure global equity and help them preserve community identity. But if intellectual property rights is a property and component of Western capitalism, then abetting its acceptance elsewhere must lead to economic transformation or adoption of the market form ex­actly among those people whom it is said to protect. (1996:104)

Common Property Studies

In The Ecologist magazine of July/August 1992 (Goldsmith et al. 1992), one reads:

Despite its ubiquity, the commons is hard to define. It provides sustenance, security and independence, yet (in what many Westerners feel to be a para­dox) typically does not produce commodities …. Systems of common rights, far from evolving in isolation, often owe their very existence to interaction and struggle between communities and the outside world. It is arguably only in reaction to invasion, dispossession or other threats to accustomed security of access that the concept of common rights emerges.

I have found it useful, in assessing traditional music as it intersects with issues of intellectual property, to turn to Common Property16 Studies. It is widely believed, though not entirely true, that Common Property Studies has primarily developed in response to the 1968 publication of Garrett Har­din’s article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which described the collapse of an unmanaged commons comprised of self‑interested individuals. This literature17 generally distinguishes four property regimes: open access, common property resources, private property, and state property. The two that most concern us here are open access and common property. “Open access is the absence of well‑defined property rights. Access to the resource is unregulated and is free and open to everyone” (Feeny et al. 1998:79).18 Common Property Resources (CPRs) fulfill two criteria. The first is that of non‑excludability, which is well‑illustrated in Douglas Noonan’s example of the Internet, where “excluding users from the Internet is technically impossible or prohibitively expensive” (1998:189). We have only to think of Mark Slobin’s comment that, “A music can suddenly move beyond all its natural boundaries and take on a new existence, as if it has fallen into the fourth dimension” (1993:20).19 The second criterion is that of subtractabil­ity or rivalrous consumption, “the source of the potential divergence between individual and collective rationality” where “each user is capable of subtracting from the welfare of other users” (Feeny et al. 1998:78).20 As Noonan describes it in relation to the Internet, “Too many users can over­load different links in the network chain, reducing the value of other trans­missions congested at that point” (1998:189). Musically speaking we have a number of areas for comparison here.

Firstly, there is the question of musical sound acting in support of a particular value system, within a particular value system. To what extent is the actual musical sound bound up with the values of the community from which it comes? To what extent do the “participatory discrepancies” (Keil and Feld 1994) or the “fuzzy edges” disclose a sonically ordered world­view? The further the music moves from its origin, the less likely that these “extras” will be passed on in transmission. Does it matter? I believe it does.

Secondly, modifying Sahlins’ concept of “kinship distance (1972), the further that music moves from its register of origin, the more likely, it seems, it is to be commodified. This has certainly happened in Irish traditional music, something which certainly changes, if not radically reduces the social value of the music. The question of individuals copyrighting tunes that have been held in common for time immemorial is another site for rivalrous consumption. As Bish writes, “the existence of valuable unowned resources provides an incentive for individuals to try to capture the resource before other potential users can do so”(1998:66). It will be interesting, in further research, to see to what extent Irish traditional music fits the criteria for CPRs,21 and to what extent common property theory can be enriched by studies of traditional transmission.

Where Common Property theory is most useful in the context of copy­right and traditional music is in the identification of the process of “enclo­sure.” We have already seen how a central element of Irish traditional mu­sic is based on an idea of gift, which supports what could be seen as a characteristically non‑commodified common property resource. It would not be too difficult to then see the commodifying processes of neo‑classical eco­nomics, commercialism in music, and of the conceptually‑bound and con­ceptually‑driven agency of the Irish Music Rights Organization as an exam­ple of enclosure in a musical context. In The Ecologist we read, “Enclosure cordons off those aspects of the environment that are deemed “useful” to the encloser . . . . Instead of being a source of multiple benefits, the environ­ment becomes a one‑dimensional asset to be exploited for a single purpose­that purpose reflecting the interests of the encloser, and the priorities of the wider political economy in which the encloser operates” (Goldsmith et al. 1992). Music becomes product, musician becomes producer in the capital­ist process of commodity production.22 Again, Goldsmith at al. write:

Enclosure claims that its own social frame, its language, is a universal norm, an all‑embracing matrix which can assimilate all others. Whatever may be “lost in translation” is supposedly insignificant, undeveloped or inferior to what is gained …. Because they hold themselves to be speaking a universal language, the modern enclosers who work for development agencies and governments feel no qualms in presuming to speak for the enclosed. They assume reflex­ively that they understand their predicament as well as or better than the en­closed do themselves. It is this tacit assumption that legitimizes enclosure in the encloser’s mind‑and it is an assumption that cannot be countered simply by transferring the visible trappings of power from one group to another.

So what are some of the lessons that can be learned from interpreting the practices of Irish traditional music as a common property resource? The threat of the “Tragedy of the (unmanaged) Commons” is undoubtedly a real one. What warning signs are there? John Baden has written that,

Tragedy strikes when self‑interest and social interest diverge . . . a common‑pool resource is a resource for which there are multiple owners (or a number of people who have nonexclusive rights to use the resource) and where one or a set of users can have adverse effects upon the interests of other users. In the situation where there is no agency with the power to coordinate or to ration use, action which is individually rational can be collectively disastrous. This is the central point of the “tragedy of the commons.” (1998:51‑52)

Need we be mindful of the commercially motivated actions of profes­sional Irish “traditional” musicians and the potentially harmful effects of their activity in a time of “communal Prozac”? What Noonan has written of the Internet strikes a number of pertinent echoes when applied to tra­ditional music in an Irish context,

. . . for the Internet to continue creating new value, it must remain robust and functional‑and not fall victim to its commons status. Up to now, the pressures on the Internet infrastructure have been relatively light, but the staggering growth in use leads‑to justifiable concern about “managing the commons.” The Inter­net currently has ingredients for tragedy: open access, rivalrous use, and rising value and decreasing costs of access to users. Limiting access to the Internet is highly problematic because of its abstract, global nature, and open access is in­tegral to the Internet’s character. Infinitesimal marginal costs of use make me­tering use difficult; charging access fees, for instance, is often more costly than the access itself. If nothing changes, some might reasonably expect the Internet to eventually crash …. Avoiding this requires addressing problems of overuse (appropriation) and undermaintenance (provision).” (Noonan 1998:190)

All That Is Not Given Is Lost

The Common Property paradigm clearly enunciates some of the pres­sures that are being brought to bear on the continued practice of Irish
tra­ditional music in its amateur and non‑commodified forms. It also invites us to properly address the underlying complexities in those areas where Slobin’s (1983) “subcultures,” “intercultures,” and “supercultures” intersect, challenging us to dispense with false dualisms:

Our studies . . . do not present themselves as essentially anti‑modern or solely dependent on either private property or community‑controlled commons for their survival. They demand that their worlds be recognized as situated with­in multiple (albeit contradictory) linkages that can be empowering while also running the risk of being exploitative. (Goldman 1998:13)

If the continued commodification of Irish traditional music is allowed to go unchecked, or is even allowed the force of law through the imposition of intellectual property and neighboring rights upon amateur and inherently non‑commodified musicking contexts, then a very precious, and ultimate­ly humanizing domain of gift will be diminished. One of the reasons that processes such as these have gone without opposition or even without clarification for so long is that the value systems are deeply embedded in cultural practice (Bourdieu 1977; Foucault 1990, 1995): “These communi­ties are ruled by a set of rights and obligations that do not have to be ex­plicitly manifest in each particular interaction, since they are taken for grant­ed” (Salazar 1996:151). Silence against political processes that are in no way benign invites dehumanization and suppresses individual responsibility to past, present and future. As Glassie writes, “Silence is not harmless. It brings disengagement. As surely as the evil tongue, silence threatens the destruc­tion of the self and the community” (Glassie 1995:35). This is a question of music as community, community as music, the consolidation of person­al participation. In Glassie’s words, “True communities are built not of dewy affection or ideological purity but of engagement” (Glassie 1995:282).

So, where to from here? Michael Goldman outlines the pessimistic view in Common Property Studies,

On the one hand, we know that capitalism can’t stop. It is a kind of malignan­cy which will keep on devouring new resources even as it undermines the very body . . . upon which it depends. Codes of conduct and voluntary restraint are laughably (or lamentably) inadequate to protect common property resources from capitalist confiscation, because that appropriation allows the cancer to spread for a while longer. This is why the stakes keep rising and the subject of the commons, whether in its local or global form, is now so hotly debated. (Goldman 1998:xiv)

The contexts for musical practice that are untouched by the hand of either competitions, tourism‑oriented showcases, or commercial perfor­mance are becoming few in number. We can seek to re‑evaluate the role of intellectual property as it impacts on Irish traditional music by coming to an understanding, in future work, of what I identify as the “Cultural Commons,” in an attempt to wrest our approaches away from the goods­-based, economic analysis that has until now dominated CPR literature.

We need to be careful not to prescribe cultural activity. We need to assert the contemporary validity of traditional practices as a contemporary response to contemporary conditions. In the words of sociologist Craig Jackson Calhoun, “I shall ask that we go still further beyond the Enlighten­ment’s historicist opposition of tradition to modernity and see tradition as grounded less in the historical past than in everyday social, practice” (1983:888). We need to carefully examine the registers of social interac­tion within which traditional practices occur, for it is here that the keys to transmission will be found. We need to explore the effect of gift, and the effect on gift of market relations. We need to be aware of the human di­mension of intellectual property application, the human dimension of in­dividualist possessiveness, the distancing effects of increasing profession­alization, the drive to convert folklore into spectacle, the change that all of these effect upon relationships, upon community, and ultimately upon the transmission process:

. . . a circulation of gift nourishes those parts of our spirit that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature, the group, the race, or the gods. Fur­thermore, although these wider spirits are a part of us, they are not “ours”; they are endowments bestowed upon us. To feed them by giving away the increase they have brought us is to accept that our participation in them brings with it an obligation to preserve their vitality. When, on the other hand, we reverse the direction of the increase‑when we profit on exchange or convert “one man’s gift to another man’s capital”‑we nourish that part of our being (or our group) which is distinct and separate from others. Negative reciprocity strengthens the spirits‑constructive or destructive‑of individualism and clan­nishness. (Hyde 1983:38)

It is crucial that the legal system, informed by consultative scholarship, recognizes the wealth, the breadth, and, most importantly, the social na­ture of traditional musics and transmission, and that it invites a fair, accu­rate, and proportioned representation of the music and its cultural context. The challenge is to effect a paradigm shift from the dominant folklore‑as­materials to folklore‑as‑practice. The challenge is to find ways to support traditional practices, by legal means, in education and in community action. To quote Calhoun,

During times when the existing order seems deeply threatened. . . such com­munities may find that they can be traditional only by being radical. (Calhoun 1983:911) 


1. Copyright is the foundation upon which the Music Business rests (Frith, ed. 1993).

2. See the press release at http://www.imro.ie/Old News/1999/comh.html.
Also http://www.imro.ie/Old_News/1999/Comhaltas2.htm1.

3. At the present time in Ireland a musician is allowed to garner 100% performance or mechanical royalties for the fixation of an “arrangement” of a traditional tune. However, there is no definition available that clarifies exactly what a “traditional” tune is. Most people assume that traditional means that the tune was composed by someone, but that no one knows who, that it is an anonymous composition. This equating of “anonymous” with “traditional” is the position of the Irish Music Rights Organization. Many people, assuming that traditional is a marker of genre, think that anything that sounds “traditional” is therefore anonymous and that they can get full royalties.

4. “Public domain” is a concept that stems from the construction of copyright, and is that space that is left over after all else has been parsed out. Anything that is not in copyright is regarded as “public domain,” effectively infinity minus copyright. However, “public domain” is synonymous with uninhibited exploitation of the music or song, and it reinforces the anon­ymous/authored dichotomy. Not only is a piece that sounds traditional often assumed to be of unknown origin, but it is therefore assumed to be open to all for free and unbridled ex­ploitation. In musical practice ‘public domain’ is inadequate, logically enough, as copyright, the foil of “public domain,” has also proved so. In real terms, traditional Irish musical prac­tice has not been open access, bounded as it is by customary norms that regulate and control the entry requirements for community participation, the repertoire content, and the internal hierarchical dynamics, among other things. Participation in the resource‑as‑community is earned by personal face‑to‑face investment of time and self in negotiation with others. For a further discussion of “public domain” see Litman (1990), Frow (1997), and Boyle (1996).

5. “In effect, public spaces help provide the glue for genuine community. Not only do they provide a form of refuge for community members and link them together in informal, relaxed settings, but the public spaces, if carefully situated, physically and symbolically link people together. When public spaces function effectively, they overlap and reinforce the patterns of interaction that occur in the broader community and help define community boundaries”(Freie 1998:59).

6. See Fairbairn (1993).

7. See Malcolm (1998).

8. “Third Spaces, as discussed by Oldenburg (1989), are simply the informal gathering places for people beyond the family and work. They include cafes, pubs, corner stores, pool halls, coffee shops, barbershops, parks, and other hangouts. They are oriented primarily for conversation and free play. They have been typically modest, inexpensive and small, where people met spontaneously to entertain each other without hidden agendas or clearly defined purposes” (Freie 1998:50).

9. The following description of musical practice from Green and Pickering’s article “The Cartography of the Vernacular Milieu” (1987) could easily have been written about the “ses­sion”; . . . performance occurs in small groups and . . . is rooted in shared, immediate, ev­eryday experience. Within the group it can be said that ‘all members know each other, are aware of their common membership, share the same values, have a certain structure of rela­tionships that is stable over time, and interact to achieve some purpose.’ Members of such groups today are of course more articulated and orientated to other external social and cul­tural frameworks of reference than ever before, and this must not be forgotten. Conversely, the decline of the family and community in social life has augmented the value of their sym­bolic celebration. So far as the group’s own dynamics are concerned, the cultural and aes­thetic mode we are discussing differs from mass communication in the following major ways. It is generally two‑way and participatory; it is usually confined to amateur performance, and where professionalism is involved it is generally at a low economic level; it is situation‑specific and contextually local as a communicative event and process, and therefore its impact is only on those involved who at the time of the event . . . bear a low relation to industrial and busi­ness structures; it involves little technological equipment and little division of labor; and as we have already indicated, it gives very low priority to the extraction of surplus value from the labor of its performance. That labor is unproductive in terms of market structures and relations, and thus holds a valid potentiality, at least, of subverting or reversing the alienation of the commodity form” (4).

10. “It’s a painfully familiar scenario: newly returned from one of the music’s distant hot spots, afire with enthusiasm over the brilliant playing you heard there, you make your way to your local session venue on the usual night, determined to give the listeners a serenading they won’t soon forget. But how quickly your mood changes! Within the first ten minutes it be­comes clear that something is amiss. Is it the quality of the playing? Possibly. But that’s only part of the problem. The rest lies in the nature of the session itself. It’s not flowing, it’s not breathing, it has no inner logic or natural momentum. It isn’t bringing out the best in the musicians, nor is it particularly pleasing the listeners.

“This is the moment when you realize that the seeming offhandedness and impromptu grace of a good session are no accident, and that a sense of how to conduct one‑and how to conduct yourself at one‑is not something you’re born with after all, your Irish surname notwithstanding. The fact is, these things must be learned, either by example or by outright instruction”(Foy 1999:10).

11. For a brief discussion of the ambiguities thrown up by professional and amateur sta­tus see Ruth Finnegan (1989).

12. A “tune” here is to be seen as a “complex of features,” a term more commonly used to speak of words, as composite representations of five classes of information: graphic, pho­nological, orthographic, semantic, and syntactic (Gibson and Levin 1975:194). Within the tune, and the word, I would also identify social context and self‑knowledge as feature‑variables, among many others.

13. In fact, to talk of the domain of gift in the context of the writings of Mauss, Sahlins, Strathern, and many more, is to assume the presence of reciprocation. I am attracted, how­ever, in the Irish context, to an article by social anthropologist James Woodburn entitled, “‘Sharing is not a form of exchange’: an analysis of property‑sharing in immediate return hunter­gatherer societies” (1998). In this article Woodburn outlines the sharing practices of the Hadza, which can be transposed fairly successfully into the Irish context. Sharing, as John Price has written, is “the most universal form of human economic behaviour, distinct from and more fundamental than reciprocity” (Cited in Woodburn 1998:50). For Woodburn,

[T]o treat this type of sharing as a form of exchange or reciprocity seriously distorts our understanding of what is going on …. My argument is that to treat such sharing as a form of exchange or reciprocity is inappropriate when donation is obligatory and is discon­nected from the right to receive. To describe such sharing as exchange or reciprocity does not accord with local ideology or local practice among the Hadza and most other hunter-gathering societies with immediate return systems. (1998:50)

Although space does not allow me to elaborate on this point, I hold that the Irish context of musical transmission works very much along the lines of “sharing” as opposed to “reciproca­tion.” An indepth analysis of the ceiling practices in Glassie (1995) would bear this out.

“Sharing here is, as we have seen, not a form of exchange. We must correct our models. Some societies operate with both ideologies and practices which repudiate reciproca­tion. It makes no sense to construct analyses of human social life which are based implicitly or explicitly on the notion of a universal necessity to reciprocate. Of course in day-to-day interaction Hadza do at times reciprocate. They show affection to those who show affection to them. They help those who help them. They are friendly to those who are friendly to them. But in their use of food and of other property, the expected be­havior is nonreciprocal sharing.” (Woodburn 1998: 61)

14. It is also a context that fits into Appadurai’s description of a “tournament of value”: “Tournaments of value are complex periodic events that are removed in some culturally well-defined way from the routines of economic life. Participation in them is likely to be both a privilege of those in power and an instrument of status contests between them. The cur­rency of such tournaments is also likely to be set apart through well-understood cultural dia­critics. Finally, what is at issue in such tournaments is not just status, rank, fame, or reputation of actors, but the disposition of the central tokens of value in the society in question. Finally, though such tournaments of value occur in special times and places, their forms and outcomes are always consequential for the more mundane realities of power and value in ordinary life” (Appadurai 1988:21).

15. “The institution of copyright is of course deeply rooted in our economic system and much of our economy does in turn depend on intellectual property. But, no less important, copyright is deeply rooted in our conception of ourselves as individuals with at least a mod­est grade of singularity, some degree of personality. And it is associated with our sense of privacy and our conviction, at least in theory, that it is essential to limit the power of the state. We are not ready, I think, to give up the sense of who we are” (Rose 1994:142).

16. In dealing with the concept of property I would follow C. M. Hann in saying that, “I argue that the focus on property must not be restricted to the formal legal codes which play a major role in our own society, but must be broadened to include the institutional and cul­tural contexts within which such codes operate. The concept of property has greater salience in capitalist society, but it can never be disembedded from these contexts. There is no anach­ronism in studying property relations in other forms of society where the economic and le­gal systems are very different. If we adopt a broad analytic concept of property in terms of the distribution of social entitlements, then it can be investigated anywhere in time and space” (Hann 1998:7).

17. “For the most part the conceptual analysis of the commons (also described as com­mon property resources, common pool resources and CPRs) has concentrated on the univer­sal principles, conditions or rules that characterise successful regimes and institutions (Ostrom 1990; Bromley 1993; Wade 1987; McGinnis and Ostrom 1993). In the process the analysis has largely circumvented the implications of internal differentiation or asymmetry including the plurality of beliefs, norms and interests involved in interactions between resource users, the effects of complex variations in culture and society, as well as wider aspects of social, polit­ical and economic conflict relating to the commons”(Prakash 1998:168). The vast majority of the literature in this field can be accessed via the International Association for the Study of Common Property, based at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, http://www.indiana.edu/‑iascp. I am grateful to participants of the workshop for their assistance in this work.

18. Already we can see that the description of an open access system pretty much con­forms to the general understanding of the free-for-all concept that embraces the public domain. As has been stated in the literature on the commons, “Many of the misunderstandings found in the literature may be traced to the assumption that common property is the same as open access” (Feeny et al. 1998:79).

19. I would like to make it clear at this point that for me the resource in question may not be “tunes” or “musical works” but the musicking, the amateur, non-commodified musical practice. Speaking of music in terms of a “resource” at all may not be appropriate.

20. “Hence, we define common-property resources as a class of resources for which exclusion is difficult and joint use involves subtractabillty” (Berkes et al. 1989:91).

21. It has been suggested to me that Public Goods might be a better model to use for these purposes.

22. Interestingly, C. A. Gregory (1982) comments that Political Economy, and not neo­classical Economics, is the only field in which we can properly analyze concepts of Gift and Commodity, while Jacques Attali (1985) comments that Political Economy is inadequate when dealing with music.

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