Piracy And Performers' Rights Over Lunch

By Melissa Blazek

You want to know how a roomful of lawyers shows respect? They put down their BlackBerries and pay attention. That happened today at the GRAMMY Foundation's Entertainment Law Initiative Luncheon, where distinguished entertainment attorney Joel A. Katz was awarded the prestigious Service Award at the annual GRAMMY Week legal-eagle gathering, this year held at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Not only did the room completely disconnect from their electronic lifelines to recognize Katz, they all stood and showered him with well-due applause.

Katz is a former Recording Academy Chairman and currently serves as the organization's General Counsel. He was instrumental in creating the ELI program in 1998 as a way for entertainment attorneys to confab, and a vehicle for young attorneys and law school students to explore careers in the entertainment field.

Katz kept the audience's attention with the story of his serendipitous start into a career in entertainment law. Having just opened his own law office in 1971, he was in a panic because he had no clients. Out of the blue, he got a call from someone looking for an Atlanta-based attorney with absolutely no music industry experience to handle a contract. The client turned out to be the one and only James Brown.

To his surprise, Katz successfully negotiated a lucrative contract for the Godfather of Soul — something veteran Los Angeles and New York attorneys had failed to do. In the wake of pulling off such a feat, Katz's phone began to ring…a lot. "Wow," he recalled saying to himself at the time, "Entertainment lawyer. I am an entertainment lawyer! That's what I want to be!" Katz's phone hasn't stopped ringing since, and he's since become one of the industry's most accomplished counselors.

"For me, entertainment law has been a wonderful journey," he said, before concluding his acceptance speech with his warm thanks. "But I still think my most productive years are ahead of me."

Proof that the future for entertainment law is bright came during a short panel discussion featuring the winners of this year's ELI Essay Competition for law school students. This year's top paper was penned by the University of Mississippi School of Law's Matthew Hofmeister, who tackled the subject of "The RIAA And Online Piracy," and posited rampant music piracy could be dampened if media providers bundled music downloading in an easy and affordable way. Hofmeister gladly took home a $5,000 scholarship for his efforts.

The afternoon's keynote speaker was Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), whose artist rights efforts include co-sponsoring the Performance Rights Act, which aims to close the loophole that allows terrestrial radio stations to not pay music performance royalties to artists. She quickly drilled down to one of the most serious topics of the afternoon: The state of California, whose economy supports more than 25,000 music industry jobs, has been vastly impacted by its share of $12 billion in annual global losses due to various forms of media piracy. According to Boxer and the bill's key supporters, understanding the intricacies of the fast-moving technological revolution, especially as it relates to content theft and artists' rights, is vital to the industry's healthy future. Her quip of "when you steal a song, it's no different than stealing a bicycle" was greeted with sustained applause.

(To view photos from the Entertainment Law Initiative Luncheon and other GRAMMY Week events, click here.)

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