Five Questions With The Ella Project
For this week’s creator spotlight, we are highlighting the work of New Orleans-based nonprofit, The Ella Project!
Explain what your organization does and tell us about your role.
The Ella Project is a New Orleans-based cultural nonprofit, providing pro bono legal assistance to moderate income artists and musicians, business development training, and sector-wide cultural advocacy.
For legal services, The Ella Project serves roughly 200 clients a year in matters of copyright, trademark, patent, contract creation and review, business and nonprofit incorporation, and other civil law matters related to an artist’s career. Services are mainly provided by Co-Founder and Director of Legal Services Ashlye Keaton through a weekly clinic, where Ashlye is assisted by interns from Tulane Law School. Louisiana Invents, our patent pro bono program, matches moderate income Louisiana inventors with volunteer attorneys. In 2019, 18 attorneys provided pro bono services via The Ella Project.
Our business development work consists of workshops. We offer single topic workshops, such as How to Apply for Patent Protection; and we offer multi-week series, such as our seven week Music Business Intensive that takes independent musicians through all phases of a modern music career, including contracts, publicity, copyright, working with performing rights organization, touring, merchandizing, and more. An additional focus in 2019-2020 was helping musicians effectively secure their copyrights and register with performing rights organizations. In 2019, we worked with 74 New Orleans musicians to ensure they are getting their full and proper royalties.
What is your (and your organization’s) interest in copyright law? How does your organization and/or its constituents rely on copyright law to support their livelihoods?
The Ella Project’s mission states that “We believe in the importance of the culture of New Orleans and Louisiana, and we empower the creators to share their culture in a way that is just, equitable, and serves the artist, patron, and our diverse community.” In many ways, copyright is at the heart of everything we do. We also know that many artists are intimidated by the registration process, and they cannot afford to hire attorneys. So, without The Ella Project, they probably wouldn’t take advantage of the bundle of rights copyright provides. There is power in those rights, and by ensuring our clients have them, they are in turn empowered to pursue their careers without the worry that their work will be misappropriated.
In 2019, to encourage even more artists to take advantage of copyright, The Ella Project collaborated with the New Orleans Business Alliance, which provided $55 mini-grants to artists who attended a copyright workshop. The Ella Project then handled filing the registration pro bono, so the artists received their copyright without having to pay legal fees and registration fees.
If there was one thing that you wished the public understood about copyright, what would it be?
That the registration process is relatively easy and provides a high level of protection.
What is your organization’s biggest copyright-related challenge?
In the face of a significant, willful infringement, the costs to litigate it are too high for most middle class creators, and while pro bono organizations like ours exist across America, we would have to stop taking clients for months to take on one major infringement case pro bono. So many artists are forced to settle with companies that know they have leverage to run up legal bills that artists can’t afford to pay.
If there was one aspect of copyright law that you could change, what would that be and how would you change it?
We would update copyright law so that the legal terms of art and application reflect an understanding of modern-day consumption trends and platforms. In so doing, the Copyright Act could actually function as an effective mechanism to fulfill its overarching policy of incentivizing artists to create.
In laymen’s terms, we would structure the Copyright Act so that it is useful in the digital age beyond providing widespread safe harbor protections to multinational corporations and others that are currently all but exempt from any real duty to fulfill any meaningful obligations to content creators.
Changing legislation on a piecemeal basis tends to result in a less positive impact for content creators, and often results in unintended consequences that generate less clarity and greater confusion. In order to avoid reform that does not result in unfair and inequitable policies and practices that often plague the field with frivolous claims, while undermining and weakening recourse for rights holders, Êthe entire Copyright Act needs to be examined through a lens of thoughtful, meaningful and deliberate attention to its underlying policy of providing an incentive to authors to create, with particular focus on application to digital platforms that exploit creative content across a global, online marketplace.
So, the Copyright Act needs to be overhauled completely to apply in the context of the 21st century. Otherwise, we’re just going to end up in a place similar to where we’ve been before, where Louis Armstrong’s Grammy-award winning 1968 sound recording of What A Wonderful World is not recognized as a work of authorship, and where an enormous performance platform like YouTube is safe guarded from doing anything substantive to prevent its customers from stealing it.
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