Sunday, January 14, 2007

Copyright and book keeping: a cautionary tale

Nine months ago I was contacted by somebody from Universal DVD who was putting together a DVD of John Martyn at the BBC. They wanted to use some ancient clip from Whistle Test which happened to feature me introducing him and they were seeking my permission. I said fine. They said, we have to pay you something. Because I've had lots of experience of the amount of palaver attached to paying trifling sums of money in cases like these, I said, don't bother, just send me some wine. They eventually came back and said they couldn't do that and they'd need me to sign a form giving them permission and then send them an invoice for £100. I duly did this (plus VAT). This was in May. Months later we were going through the books and found it hadn't been paid. So I got on to them. They did a search and came back saying I needed to fill in a form to become one of their official suppliers before I could get paid. You know the kind of thing: sort codes, VAT numbers, next of kin etc. I still didn't get paid. Three months later they paid me, but they missed off the VAT. Now, once you've made out a VAT invoice, you have to get it paid or the VAT man wants to know what you're up to. So I get on to them again. Just before Christmas they send me that missing VAT, but it's wrong by £2.50. So almost a year later I'm still chasing a sum of money that I never asked for and a number of people both at my end and at Universal's have had their valuable time wasted. Now I'm not asking for sympathy but my point is this: as the entertainment and media industries get more and more complex and diverse, how much more of people's time is going to be occupied chasing signatures in order to clear this or that footling item? I don't have any moral rights here. I don't add any commercial value to John Martyn's DVD. If they'd just left me in and not said anything I wouldn't have been particularly bothered. I know that the producers of these Whistle Test DVDs have to waste months chasing down bass players of long-forgotten bands in order to tell them that if they sign to clear this twenty five year old performance they're entitled to £53.34 or whatever it is. It is an unsustainable model devised for a different era. No wonder Bill Gates is talking about buying out musicians for life.


  1. Anonymous12:42 pm

    Hmmm. The payments dept at Universal sound like some of my customers.
    Don't pay you for months, then they find a reason why not when you chase them, then they underpay you.

    As an afterthought, like unclaimed Premium Bonds, is there a potentially substantial sum waiting to be claimed by missing 60's rhythm sections?

    Now there's a niche business just waiting to be started. "Only 25% commission + expenses (upfront) and we'll get YOUR old TV royalties paid".

    I hope you spent that £100 on some decent wine.

  2. I think the truth is that the amounts would be so piffling they're hardly worth the admininstration. Somebody at the BBC got on to me a few years ago about selling an Aswad concert that I'd introduced to some overseas territory. I was entitled to 10% of the original fee, which meant I got £15. That doesn't cover the paperwork. And just think how many BBC employees occupy their days chasing up similar payments.

  3. Anonymous3:20 pm

    Nobel Laureat Richard Feynman was once asked to give a lecture in Brazil. He agreed to do so for free, with the condition that the deal was off if he had to sign his name more than 10 times in order to give this free talk. They failed.

    It took 12 signatures. And this must have been in the 60s. He still gave the talk though.

  4. Anonymous12:11 pm

    Interesting phenomenon, we have similar problems here in Holland when you try to do some work for municipalities. First they want a declaration that you are not employed by them. Then they draw up a contract. Once you send them a bill it turns out they did not understand their own contract. After much hassle they agree to do a payment, which typically takes at least another thirty days. Must be caused by 'managers' in combination with people who don't do their job properly. Liked the DVD a lot, though.