A French collecting society wants a tax on generative AI, payable to…collecting societies

Back in October last year, Walled Culture wrote about a proposed law in France that would see a tax imposed on AI companies, with the proceeds being paid to a collecting society. Now that the EU’s AI Act has been adopted, it is being invoked as another reason why just such a system should be set up. The French collecting society SPEDIDAM (which translates as “Society for the collection and distribution of performers rights”) has issued a press release on the idea, including the following (translation via DeepL):

SPEDIDAM advocates a right to remuneration for performers for AI-generated content without protectable human intervention, in the form of fair compensation that would benefit the entire community of artists, inspired by proven and virtuous collective management models, similar to that of remuneration for private copy.

This remuneration, collected from AI system suppliers, would also help support the cultural activities of collective management organizations, thus ensuring the future employment of artists and the constant renewal of the sources feeding these tools.

That sounds all well and good, but as we noted last year, collecting societies around the world have a terrible record when it comes to sharing that remuneration with the creators they supposedly represent. Walled Culture the book (free digital versions available), quotes from a report revealing “a long history of corruption, mismanagement, confiscation of funds, and lack of transparency [by collecting societies] that has deprived artists of the revenues they earned”. They also have a tendency to adopt a maximalist interpretation of their powers. Here are few choice examples of their actions over the years:

  • Soza (Slovenský Ochranný Zväz Autorský/Slovak Performing and Mechanical Rights Society), a Slovakian collecting society, has sought money from villages when their children sing. One case involved children singing to their mothers on Mothers’ Day.
  • SABAM (Société d’Auteurs Belge/Belgische Auteurs Maatschappij/Belgian Authors’ Society), a Belgian collecting society, sought expanded protection for readings of copyrighted works. One consequence of their action was that it would require librarians to pay a licence to read books to children in a children’s library.
  • SABAM sought a licensing fee from truck drivers who listened to the radio alone in their trucks.
  • The British collecting society PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) sought a fee from a hardware store owner who listened to the radio in his store while cleaning it after he had closed.
  • The Performing Rights Society in the UK sought performance licensing fees from a woman who played classical music to her horses.

SPEDIDAM’s press release is interesting as perhaps the first hint of a wider pan-European campaign to bring in some form of levy on the use of training data for generative AI services. That would just take a new bad idea – taxing companies for simply analysing training material – and add it to an old bad idea, that of hugely-inefficient collecting societies. The resulting system would be a disaster for the European AI industry, since it would favour deep-pocketed US companies. Moreover, this approach would produce no meaningful benefit for creators, as the sorry history of collective societies has shown time and again.

Featured image by Enrico van Leeuwen.

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