Nowadays, almost everything is digital – back in 1923, most things were still mechanical. Technological change has repeatedly resulted in changes to copyright law. And thus, SUISA’s eventful history begins shortly after the first improvement of the original Swiss Copyright Act of 1883 came into force in 1922.
The composers as well as musicians at that time were worried that music automatons would compete with their live performances. The most important task of MECHANLIZENZ AG, founded in June 1923, was to license the production of sound recordings. Records were still in their infancy and so it was mainly about music boxes that found their way into the big wide world, especially from the area around Yverdon and Sainte-Croix.
Everything for the music
One year later, GEFA, the Swiss Society for Performance Rights, is founded. After the introduction of the new rights exploitation law, GEFA is transformed from an association into a cooperative and begins operations under a new name on 1 Jan 1942: SUISse Auteurs – or SUISA for short.
In 1946, the Board of Directors decides to open an office in Lausanne in order to better serve members and clients in French-speaking Switzerland. In addition, the Lausanne office is to become the point of contact for all cinemas, film producers and television advertising clients throughout Switzerland. In the same year, a small workforce moves into the Bel-Air Tower, the largest high-rise building in Switzerland at the time. In 1954, the company moves to the future “House of Music” in Lausanne. As of 2002, there is a branch office in Lugano for customers and musicians in Ticino.
Increasing music consumption
In the post-war years, more and more music is consumed and more and more is also composed. Between 1942 and 1960, SUISA’s membership numbers triple. In 1958, MECHANLIZENZ AG is affiliated with SUISA, but remains legally independent for the time being. 22 years later, it is decided to fully merge the two companies.
From 1961 onwards, Ulrich Uchtenhagen takes over SUISA’s fortunes and leads it through the changes during the boom period for 28 years. During his time, the World Directory of Authors and Publishers was established. SUISA receives a mandate from the World Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC) to compile a ‘list’ of all composers, lyricists and music publishers who are registered with a copyright society. The result is the CAE Directory of Compositeurs, Auteurs and Éditeurs across all genres such as music, literature, film or visual arts. This quickly comprises more than one million authors and publishers.
SUISA offers this directory as a service to all collecting societies worldwide against payment of a usage licence. Since the late 1990s, the CAE has been rebranded as the IPI (Interested Parties Information), which can be accessed online by all rightsholders around the globe.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the partnership relationship with important users such as the SRG (Swiss Broadcasting Corporation) and the hospitality industry is deepened. The increased music consumption and more and more registered works require a separate computer system to process the enormous amount of data at that time. Partly due to the huge space requirements of IT at the time, SUISA builds its current headquarters on Bellariastrasse in Zurich Wollishofen, which it moves into in autumn 1968.
Promote and collect
At the end of the 1980s, the “SUISA Foundation for Music”, today’s FONDATION SUISA, is founded. The initiator was the French-speaking Swiss composer and writer Michel Bühler and his idea of a central structure to support chanson. Thus, the task of the FONDATION SUISA is to promote current music creation in Switzerland and abroad, for which it currently awards around 2.5 million Swiss francs annually.
The start of online music distribution in the late 1990s marked the beginning of profound and lasting changes. In 2006, the EU Commission issued a recommendation aimed at achieving the greatest possible competition between companies for the management of online rights. Rightsholders should be able to decide in the internal market, free of territorial boundaries, to which company they entrust their rights for management. As a result, large Anglo-American major publishers are withdrawing reproduction rights from European collecting societies in the hope of being able to license them themselves and directly from online music providers at better conditions. SUISA is the first collecting society to develop a suitable system for carving out the major publishers’ shares in the works and thus correctly accounting for the licenses for online use.
After the revision is before the revision
“Does Switzerland need a law against illegal music downloading?” This postulate of the then member of the Council of States (Ständerat) Géraldine Savary was the impetus for the last copyright revision in 2010. The revised URG, which came into force on 1 April 2020, attempts to anchor the reality of online business in the law. But the interests of the users and creators and artists are in many respects far apart. Consumers also take a strong position and defend the permission to private copy music with remuneration via blank media levies. And so it becomes a compromise where both sides accommodate each other. Since then, technology has changed rapidly again: Music is being streamed more and more frequently. A regulation for downloading music comes too late altogether. For movies, it just about misses out.
There is no question that this revision of Swiss copyright law is not the last one, but rather the prelude to the next one. Due to a rapidly advancing digitization and emerging technological developments such as artificial intelligence or machine learning legal standards will have to be reviewed again.
Big steps into the future
SUISA’s current Executive Committee has been in office since 2010. CEO Andreas Wegelin, his deputy Vincent Salvadé and COO and first woman on SUISA’s Executive Board, Irène Philipp Ziebold, not only steer SUISA’s fortunes, they also drive the technological renewal of IT systems and the streamlining and automation of processes.
Not least because of its well-developed and constantly evolving IT system, SUISA is well positioned to compete internationally. In 2017, it founded the joint venture Mint Digital Services together with the U.S. music rights organisation SESAC, through which invoicing and administration of the cross-border music licensing business with online providers has since taken place. In the same year, the Liechtenstein-based company SUISA Digital Licensing is founded, which is responsible for the licensing of international online music platforms. Both companies also offer their services to other collecting societies and music publishers, and last year managed the online business of over 22 collecting societies and 4,000 publishers worldwide.
Who could have foreseen this change 100 years ago? And who dares to forecast the next 100? Music usage remains in constant flux: It will shift even further to the internet, and the licensing of music use on TV or concerts will no longer necessarily be based on the territorial principle but on whoever offers the best service and the most favourable conditions. SUISA is ready for the challenges and thanks all former and current staff members, all composers, lyricists and publishers for their commitment and trust. Together, we’ve been making music happen for a hundred years.