Strong IP Rights are Needed to Protect the Next Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige

By Frank Cullen

This year’s star-studded GRAMMY Awards featured extraordinary performances by Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z, and more. Their groundbreaking careers and presence on the stage are reminders that the journey to superstardom is not easy.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, it can cost $2 million to break an artist into a major market. Only a tiny fraction of hopeful musicians ever make it big. Even those with financial backing face long odds.

Of course, the next Stevie Wonder or Mary J. Blige must overcome more than just fierce competition and financial barriers to entry. Today’s artists must contend with the rise of music piracy, a nefarious practice in which listeners illegally stream or download a musician’s content.

In 2022, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry found that nearly one-third of music listeners accessed content illegally.

In some cases, illegal streaming sites obtain music from artists just hours after it’s released, or even before it’s available to the public. Hackers recently leaked more than 200 unreleased songs from Future, A$AP Rocky, 21 Savage and Playboi Carti, stripping them of the chance to release their art on their terms.

Music piracy prevents artists from being fairly compensated for their hard work and can deprive them of substantial earnings. Indeed, the sound recording industry and related retail industries lose $2.7 billion per year due to music theft.

Many popular artists have spoken out against music piracy. According to country music superstar Keith Urban, “Downloading can be a great way to share music, but downloading music illegally threatens the future of everyone that depends on you for their livelihood.”

Ordinary Americans suffer as a result of music theft, too.

Each year, the U.S. economy loses more than 70,000 jobs and $12.5 billion to music piracy. Local, state, and federal governments lose approximately $422 million in annual tax revenues as a result of this theft.

Music piracy is devastating for artists and everyday Americans alike, but luckily, there is a path forward.

First, the United States Trade Representative (USTR) can limit piracy abroad by improving the enforcement of existing trade agreements. For instance, Mexico must protect against music piracy under the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA), but inadequate enforcement allows the practice to run rampant in the country.

Second, law enforcement agencies can prosecute the criminal organizations responsible for digital piracy and remove websites where illegal downloads occur. At the same time, the music industry and government should encourage listeners to avoid and report pirated content.

The path to musical success is already challenging, but without efforts to combat digital piracy, the world may miss out on the next chart-topping hit or GRAMMY award-winning artist.

Frank Cullen is executive director of the Council for Innovation Promotion.

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