Written by Music, Politics

Copyright Extension

In just four days, we could begin to see the first of Cliff Richard’s singles re-released without Richard himself either profiting or having any say over what’s released.
That could happen, although as I write, I can’t see any forthcoming releases at Amazon. Indeed he’s recently released a celebratory 50 years anthology, and gave away an album with the Mail on Sunday recently covering much the same.
His first two singles came out in 1958 and were Move It and High Class Baby.
Because copyright on current performers extends over 50 years, those songs drop out of copyright from Jan 1 2009.
Richard’s problem is that he performed, but did not write most of his hits. Move It, Wikipedia tells me, was written by Ian Samwell (Aaron Schroeder wrote the B-Side – Schoolboy Crush). Samwell died in 2003, but his estate continues to profit from the song he wrote, and will do so until 2073 under current UK copyright legislation.
But Richards isn’t happy, and he’s not alone. In 2012 early Beatles songs will also go out of copyright, and thousands of other songs are going out of copyright every year.
There’s a massive push amongst the UK music industry to get this period increased from 50 years to 95 years.
The reason is simple. These songs currently earn money, and with recorded sales declining, the industry is trying to recoup every penny it possibly can from wherever it can.
Is this a problem? Doesn’t Cliff et al deserve a few quid for their work? Well in fact, Cliff’s profited quite nicely. The major problem the industry has is that all the people who stand up for them seem to be well-known multi-millionaires. I can look at my own work in 50 years time and know that it won’t be earning me any cash. But then I know that because I went in knowing it. If I perform a song today and it’s in some way successful (I know this is a stretch, but stay with me), then I know that I have but 50 years to recoup some cash. A struggle I know.
Andy Burnham recently stood up in front of the music industry and gave a speech which suggested that the UK government was backing down from the conclusions of its own report.
Gowers, the author of the report, has a fantastic riposte in the FT:
Copyright is an economic instrument, not a moral one, and if you consider the economic arguments – as I did two years ago at the request of Gordon Brown – you will find that they do not stack up. All the respectable research shows that copyright extension has high costs to the public and negligible benefits for the creative community.
Consumers find themselves paying more for old works or unable to access “orphan works” where copyright ownership is unclear. Small businesses that play recorded music such as hairdressing salons and local radio stations face a hidden extra “tax” in the form of higher music-licence fees. Do they really need this at this time?

Gowers goes on to point out that no musician has ever decided not to record a song because it’ll be out of copyright in 50 years.
The orphan works argument is also important. Most recorded music is not available today. It was largely disposable at the time, and even if it wasn’t, unless it was recorded by a big enough star, it has long gone out of print. It’s worth nobody’s time putting it back in print if there are unnecessary copyright payments making the project unworkable.
And if you can’t even trace the copyright owners, then you can expect the works to remain out of print until that copyright period is up completely. Currently that’s 50 years from then, but it could reach 70 or even 95 if we mimic the States where Walt Disney has had such a sway.
As ever, it’s the Open Rights Group that looks out for this kind of thing, because the music industry sings from one voice.
As it points out: the record industry will roll out some needy musicians – and there undoubtedly are many. But they won’t be the real beneficiaries of increasing the term: many of those performance rights are owned by the large labels. I don’t doubt that they’re suffering. Look at EMI after all. But that’s not reason to tax the public.
[Regular readers may know that I’ve written a lot on this subject before. Here, here and here for example. These views, are of course my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.]