Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to the Editor of The Times

Letter No.: 
[Wednesday, 7 December, 1955]

The Copyright bill now before Parliament incorporates a particular provision which is capable of destroying a large part of this country's musical life, but which, because of its specious character, may commend itself to sections of the community both in Parliament and outside it who are unaware of the facts.
Part IV of the Bill would establish a tribunal to determine, inter alia, disputes regarding the tariffs of the Performing Right Society (P.R.S.), which issues blanket licences to perform in public practically all British and foreign copyright music.  Without such a central licensing organization the music-user would find himself in the impossible position that he could not authorize the performance of a single copyright musical work without seeking the permission of the composer in whatever part of the world he chanced to be.
The P.R.S. has itself long advocated the setting up of a tariffs tribunal, but clause 26 of the Bill in subsections (5) and (6) proposes to endow the tribunal with power to order the P.R.S. to issue free licences to “social service bodies” defined in such wide terms as to cover an immense field of public entertainment, which could een include the broadcasts of the B.B.C.  The objections to which these subsections are open are so numerous that we cannot reasonably ask you to print more than the more important of them:-
(1)  The subsections are against the recommendations of the Copyright Committee, 1951, which the Bill is deigned to implement.  In paragraph 137 of the committee's report it is stated: “We ave it in evidence from a number of interests, including … the National Council of Social Service, that they have no complaints against the PR.S.”  In paragraph 150 the Copyright Committee quoted a witness as saying that bodies such as youth clubs, women's institutes, Y.M.C.A.s, &c., could appreciated the justification for paying performing right fees to composers, and the committee accordingly did not recommend that anyone should be exempted from such fees.  Subsections (5) and (6) of clause 27 of this Bill would thus endow the tribunal with powers which the Copyright Committee, after careful consideration of the issues, did not recommend that the tribunal should have.
(2)  They are against reason and logic.  The Bill does not exempt social service bodies from liability to authors of literary and dramatic works and to film producers, yet composers and authors of non-dramatic music are to be deprived of their rights under the Act – because they have formed a society to collect their fee effectively.  It is difficult to restrain our indignation in the face of such wanton discrimination.
(3)  They are against the public interest.  The P.R.S. blanket licence operates as much in the interests of the music-user as of the performing right owner.  Composers and authors cannot, however, be compelled to license their rights through the P.R.S.; and if the P.R.S. is restrained from effectively administering those rights, will they not do their best to collect their fees individually, as they will be entitled to do?  This situation would lead to chaos, and the social service bodies would find themselves involved in greater expense that they now incur in paying modest fees to the P.R.S.
(4)  They are against equity, in that they could compel the composer alone to subsidize the tremendously wide field of public entertainment covered by Clause 27 (6), when no other class of citizen is compelled by lave to donate its services or its goods in the same cause,
Performing right fee nowadays form the music-creator's principal means of livelihood; but even so it is the policy of the P.R.S. voluntarily to grant licenses gratis or at reduced rates to most charitable, religious, educational, and welfare associations.  The really alarming nature of the situation which faces composers and lyric authors is not so much the prospect of losing the modest annual fees now paid by social service bodies, but the statutory invitation to the Tribunal in this Bill (which will almost certainly be considered an obligation) to exempt from payment of performing fees a range of bodies so wide that it is difficult to say who might not on some pretext or other claim as of right the exemption that the tribunal is to be empowered to grant.  The prospect which thus faces many composers and lyric authors is nothing less serious than expropriation of their means of livelihood.
On the evidence of the Copyright Committee, composers have not abused their rights in the past, and the tribunal will take care of the future.  We submit there is an unanswerable case for taking these two subsections our of the Bill and leaving the tribunal free to adjudicate impartiality unencumbered by statutory bias.
Yours faithfully,
William Alwyn, Arthur Bliss, Eric Coates, Vivian Ellis, Douglas Furber, Christopher Hassall, A.P. Herbert, Eric Maschwitz, Montague Phillips, W.H. Squire, William Walton, R. Vaughan Williams, Haydn Wood.

General notes: 

Printed in The Times newspaper, Wednesday, 7 December, 1955, headed "Copyright Bill Proposal: Music for “Social service bodies”".

The Times (no.53397), Wednesday, December 7, 1955, p.11.