Take a Walkman to Finland

The reason why we are bothering with the troubles of the Finns is that copyright and royalty practices have a tendency to spread across borders.

December. It's snowing in Helsinki, and people are trying to catch a taxi home after a day's work. It will be a long ride because of the traffic jams. Here's one. We get in it. Five, ten minutes go by; it's totally quiet in the cab. Why don't you turn on the radio, I ask the driver. Oh, I have a radio, but in Finland we don't play the radio in the cab, he explains. Huh?

What can you do in a Finnish cab stuck in traffic in the dead of winter if not listen to some music? The Supreme Court in Finland could care less. A week ago, judges ruled by a majority of 7 to 4 that the 9,500 taxi drivers in Finland are to pay $20 a year in royalties to the Finnish copyright society Teosto. The chairman of the taxi drivers' association, Lauri Luotonen, said that most drivers will probably turn off their radio when carrying passengers or listen to tapes. It was Luotonen who started all this brouhaha; he refused to pay royalties to Teosto, which then sued him all the way to the high court. Consequently, if you're going to Finland, take a Walkman.

The rationale behind the court's decision is self-evident. Under Finnish law, anyone playing music that is protected by copyright in a public place as part of another activity in which he is making money, must have a special license or pay royalties to Teosto. Under Finnish law, anywhere that is not inside a home is a public place. Now let's put the pieces of the puzzle together: drivers drive outside of their homes; they collect fares; they play the radio for their passengers, too. Well then, $20 a year it will be.

The minority judges felt differently. They explained that when you stop a cab, you don't do it to listen to music but to get from point A to point B. "The radio is on to entertain the driver. Many times the passengers actually ask him to turn it off," they noted.

The reason why we are bothering with the troubles of the Finns is that copyright and royalty practices have a tendency to spread across borders. The first copyright law in the world was passed in England in 1710, and a few decades later crossed the Atlantic and was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. The World Intellectual Property Organization now serves as a springboard to jump these kinds of laws from one country to the next.

It is not unreasonable to ask, then, whether one sweaty summer day Israeli taxi drivers will discover they have to pay royalties to listen to Natan Zehavi yelling at another caller. This court ruling attests primarily to the increasing power wielded by those demanding royalties for content for which they are already being paid - after all, the radio already pays Teosto royalties.

In the early 1970s, America's RCA tried to develop an innovative technology - distribution of films on magnetic media, long before what we know as the VCR was invented. RCA was certain that the financial value their technology offered the film industry is maximal: the videotaped film can only be played once; after that, it is locked. If the viewer wants to watch it again, he would have to take the unit to the store, where it is unlocked for additional pay. This way, the copyright holder can make sure that the movie is watched just once.

One of the designers gave a demonstration for five senior Disney officers. They were appalled. They were unimpressed with the new technology and said they would never agree to distribute content this way. When the RCA representative tried to understand why, one of the Disney guys explained: "How can we make sure that the movie is only watched by the person who paid for it? What would stop other people from entering the room and watching the movie for free?"