Music & clubs

What is GEMA?

Here's a rocket-speed tour through German music copyright law, the deal with Youtube and why Germany's "music mafia" has musicians and venue owners alike frustrated.

Established in the early 1900s to help defend music author copyrights and distribute royalties, the Gesellschaft für musikalische Aufführungs- und mechanische Vervielfältigungsrechte (society for musical performing and mechanical reproduction rights) collects payment on behalf of musicians whose music is played in public in Germany – on the radio; over bar, café or store speakers; in film and TV soundtracks; covered by another artist or performed by themselves live.

It’s not just for German music. GEMA works as the German arm of most other such societies around the globe, including America’s ASCAP and BMI and England’s PRS, effectively overseeing all copyrighted music within the country.

It’s everywhere. All public events that include music, from street festivals to open mics, must either pay GEMA the appropriate usage fee or submit a playlist proving only non-copyrighted music was played. If even one song falls under GEMA repertoire, the organisers have to pay the full fee. The organisation’s inflexibility on this matter has led to frustration among club owners, small venue owners and musicians alike.

It’s strict. Unlike many other performance rights organisations, GEMA doesn’t let members choose how their music is licensed – GEMA members can’t ask to have their music played royalty-free on independent radio stations, for example, or give it away for non-commercial purposes.

It still hasn’t worked things out with Youtube. GEMA is the only collecting society that hasn’t come to an agreement with the video streaming site, which is why most videos containing copyrighted music can’t be played in Germany. In 2014, GEMA sued Youtube for blaming them in the message that appeared when a video was blocked (“Unfortunately, this video is not available in Germany, because it may contain music for which GEMA has not granted the respective music rights.”); it’s since been changed to “music for which we could not agree on conditions of use with GEMA”. (UPDATE: On Nov 1, 2016, GEMA and Youtube finally reached a settlement, the exact terms of which have not yet been revealed. In America, performers are paid between 0.03 and 0.18 cents per Youtube stream; GEMA’s last publicised demand was 0.375 euro cents in 2013, down from 12 cents(!) initially.)

It’s the only game in town… for now. GEMA is able to be so demanding because it’s a monopoly in Germany. C3S (the Cultural Commons Collecting Society) positions itself as a more flexible, less-stodgy alternative, giving musicians the option to licence their music under Creative Commons and choose which usages they want royalties for. The problem: despite having raised over €117,000 in crowdfunding, the Düsseldorf-based group has yet to gain the critical mass of users it would need to become a functional performance rights organisation, and seems to have stalled out for now. Check their website for updates.