Protecting Songwriters In the Age of AI (Guest Column)

The significance of Washington washed over me as my flight dodged the historic monuments and we descended into DCA. An interesting metaphor for the opportunities and challenges of advocating for music creators’ rights in today’s lightning round race into the future.

I have visited many times over the years to fight for the rights of songwriters on Capitol Hill. This week, songwriter members of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) will once again be with me in Washington for “We Write the Songs,” a performance held at the Library of Congress and co-presented by The ASCAP Foundation. Hit songwriters will play for Members of Congress and others and share the stories behind their beloved songs. As songwriters, we are also here to affirm our rights as artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies seek to use our creations.

ASCAP is a unique entity in the music world — we are the only performance-rights organization (PRO) founded and governed by democratically elected music creators and publishers. As a membership organization, we represent nearly a million songwriters, composers, lyricists and music publishers across every genre. We are also the only U.S. PRO that operates on a not-for-profit basis so, unlike others whose profits may go elsewhere to corporate dividends and private equity investors, we put creators first in everything we do.

As the chairman of ASCAP’s board, I have seen our industry go through immense changes. When music moved from records to tapes to CDs to pirated online listening, our members descended upon Washington to ensure the rights of songwriters were respected across new platforms and listening experiences.

Emerging technologies – whether it be streaming or AI – have always presented our industry both challenges and opportunities. But in every instance, we as songwriters are often the first to feel the effects when technology outpaces the law.

During Songwriter Advocacy Day, held the day after We Write the Songs, ASCAP members – the songwriters, composers and publishers that form the soundtrack to our lives – will meet with Members of Congress and urge them to protect creators in the age of AI.

At ASCAP, we have developed six guiding principles for AI and we need Congress to act to uphold them:

  • Human Creators First, prioritizing rights and compensation for human creativity
  • Transparency, in identifying AI vs. human-generated works and retaining metadata
  • Consent, protecting the right for creators to decide whether their work is included in an AI training license
  • Compensation, making sure creators are paid fairly when their work is used in ANY way by AI, which is best accomplished in a free market, NOT with government-mandated licensing that essentially eliminates consent
  • Credit, when creators’ works are used in new AI-generated music
  • Global Consistency, an even playing field that values intellectual property across the global music and data ecosystem

While most songwriters work behind the scenes, our work has enormous value to an industry that generates $170 billion a year for the U.S. economy. But we have long been over-regulated — we are some of the most heavily controlled small business owners in the country. Roughly three-quarters of the average American songwriter’s income is subject to federal government regulations. All the while, big media and tech companies are consistently looking for ways to pay songwriters less by regulating us even more.

ASCAP has embraced new and emerging advances in technology, and we have the capacity and infrastructure to manage it at scale. But it has remained painfully clear that any new technology needs to respect existing copyright law. Music creators are concerned about the threat to their livelihood and 8 out of 10 believe A.I. companies need better regulation. Our mission at ASCAP is to help music creators navigate the future while protecting their rights and livelihoods, and enabling the type of innovation that will move the entire music industry forward.

Just because AI requires a high volume of inputs, that does not mean it cannot be licensed or deserves an exception under the law. Just as we’ve approached the streaming market, we believe the opportunities presented by AI can be realized in the free market. To do so, we need lawmakers to stand with songwriters and not give big tech and AI companies a free ride with government-mandated licenses for AI.

AI is a new challenge, but we are well positioned to meet this challenge as we always have in the face of new technologies. We are ready to help chart the path, and we look forward to sharing those insights — and breaking it down on the dance floor — with the same lawmakers whose partnership and enthusiasm has helped us to fight for the rights of songwriters as new technologies emerge.

ASCAP president and chairman of the board Paul Williams is an Oscar-, Grammy- and Golden Globe-winning composer and lyricist who has written “The Rainbow Connection,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and many other hits.