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Tokyo court rules Japan copyright group can collect fees from music schools

Masato Oike, representative of the plaintiffs' group, speaks to reporters in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward after the Tokyo District Court ruling, on Feb. 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Richi Tanaka)

TOKYO -- The Tokyo District Court ruled on Feb. 28 that Japan's music copyright collection group can take copyright fees from music schools in a lawsuit brought by music school operators, concluding that charging dues "does not go against the objective of the copyright law which contributes to cultural development."

A total of some 250 individuals, companies and organizations that operate music schools across Japan, including the country's largest music school operator Yamaha Music Foundation, brought a lawsuit in June 2017 against the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers (JASRAC) after the organization announced four months earlier that it would charge music schools copyright fees for songs played in lessons.

Under the Copyright Act, the right to perform music to be heard by the public resides with copyright holders such as composers. The main points of contention in the legal battle were whether students at music schools could be considered the "public" and whether performances in lessons were carried out to "be heard."

Presiding Judge Tatsubumi Sato pointed out that music school operators manage instruction policies and make profits off of using songs, and that the primary actors using music are not students or teachers, but the school operators. He then said because anyone can join their lessons, students are "unspecified" from the perspectives of the operators. Furthermore, Judge Sato stated that even though individual schools have a small number of students, since the facilities are operated continuously and structurally in different areas, there are "many students," recognizing that the students are "many and unspecified members of the public."

Judge Sato then pointed out that teachers play music "for their students, who are a part of the public, to listen to it carefully" and that the students also "need to listen to their own performance carefully to improve their skills," concluding that music is played at schools in an objective "to have people listen to it."

JASRAC sets the copyright fees at 2.5% of annual income from lesson fees if music schools pay them yearly. The organization says 773 entities operating a total of 6,856 music schools across Japan are subject to copyright fees, and the amounts collected annually are expected to be somewhere from 350 million to 1 billion yen. JASRAC has already started collecting fees from 10 operators (12 facilities) not involved in the lawsuit.

In response to the Feb. 28 ruling, Masato Oike, representative of the group of plaintiffs, told reporters, "It is extremely disappointing. We are likely to appeal." On the other hand, JASRAC Managing Director Kazuhiro Seko told a news conference, "We understand that our claim was fully recognized. We will work to gain understanding from music school operators and for the further development of music culture through giving back to the creators of music.

Yoko Kobayashi, left, teaches piano to a student in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward, on Feb. 24, 2020. (Mainichi/Kenji Tatsumi)

Yoko Kobayashi, a music school operator in Tokyo, expressed frustration over the ruling, saying, "I'm shocked and disappointed." She runs four music schools in Tokyo, with roughly 50 teachers and around 600 students. Because her schools basically have one-on-one lessons and most songs are only played in parts, Kobayashi is not convinced by the district court's ruling that recognized performances at music schools as something "for the public to listen to."

Meanwhile, Toshiyuki Omori, a Tokyo-based composer, argues that when music creators receive a fair price for their works, "good sounds" can spread in society. He welcomed the ruling, saying, "Businesses making profits by using songs should pay fees. That's how you 'pay respect' to music."

(Japanese original by Kenji Tatsumi, City News Department and Noboru Hirose, Cultural News Department)

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