How ASCAP jumped the shark

What ASCAP failed to recognize was that while old-style mailings would stay within the family, today's pitches can go viral, as this one did, causing some musicians to quit the group.

Before the Web was spun, computer marketing meant direct mail.

(The phrase "jumping the shark" originated with this scene in the 1970s series Happy Days. From Wikipedia.)

The idea was simple.

Buy lists of magazine subscribers or interest groups consistent with your own offer. An AARP membership list for offers of Florida condos. A Rolling Stone subscriber list for fast cars. Through careful cross-referencing you could buy a list of excellent prospects for a reasonable price.

Then you would write them your best pitch. Each "envelope" cost about $1. The pitch was graded based on its success rate -- 2% was average.

Product pitches were positive, but there were also political pitches. These were usually negative. Rather than writing about the merits of your stand or candidate (which you assumed the recipient favored) you would degrade the other side. Call them names, make the reader fear them. Then ask for cash.

If it sounds like a protection racket, it is a pretty sophisticated one. And legal. Political movements of all kinds thrive on this stuff. One could even argue that the polarization of our politics stems, at least in part, from political mailings.

And so we come to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which apparently didn't see the century turn over from 20 to 21.

The music rights group sent out a political mailing to its members, demonizing "free culture" groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Creative Commons, Public Knowledge and "public companies with deep pockets," by which I guess it meant Google.

As with most political mailings this one took some liberties with the truth. saying its perceived enemies were "mobilizing to promote 'copyleft' in order to undermine our 'copyright.'"

As Wired notes, the mailing went out just as the government was trying to shift focus on copyright policy, acknowledging fair use, drawing praise from both sides.

What ASCAP failed to recognize was that while old-style mailings would stay within the family, today's pitches can go viral, as this one did, causing some musicians to quit the group.

ASCAP now faces a choice. It can back away from its extreme position, or go all in, acknowledging that it's an enemy of open source, and that it sees the Constitution's clear language in Article One, Section 8 as meaning its opposite:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries; (emphasis mine)

What those of us in open source need to recognize, however, is that this is a choice. Campaigns to change the clear meaning of the Constitution do, sometimes work. And Happy Days stayed on the air for seven years after Fonzie jumped that shark.

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