Copyright extension: win or lose?

Andy MaltSo, copyright extension. Ccooopppyyyyrriiiiiigghhhtttt Eeeeexxxxtttteeeeeeeeennnsssssiiiioooooonnnnnn. It’s not fun, but we’re going to talk about it because it’s the big music business story of the week. Actually, it’s not even this week’s story really. The move to extend the sound recording copyright in Europe was rubber stamped by the European Union this Monday, but we knew it was going happen last week.

Basically copyright on recordings in Europe is going to be extended from 50 to 70 years – bringing it slightly closer to the 95 years enjoyed in the US – after groups lobbying for the change finally convinced representatives of all EU member states that it was a good idea. This means that on 1 Jan 2013, EMI will still own the exclusive right to sell the first Beatles single ‘Love Me Do’. Which is nice. For them.

But it wasn’t the possibility of EMI being able to earn even more money from some 50 year old recordings that brought about the extension. What really won it was the possibility of some aging session musicians being out on the street, the same argument that changed the British government’s mind two years ago.

The argument goes like this: Session musicians, by law, are due a cut (a small cut) of public performance royalties from any recordings that they play on. And if you happened to play the kazoo on a particularly big hit that is still played regularly around the world 50 years later, then that small cut can add up to a fairly decent salary. But, said the BPI, PPL and others behind the campaign, after 50 years those musicians no longer get their cut, and suddenly find themselves with no income.

Now, you might ask why these people hadn’t planned for their retirement, and you’d probably be right to. Nevertheless, many of these musicians were wheeled into parliament during the campaign and MPs were asked to explain why they were going to take the food out of these OAPs’ mouths. The MPs, rather than asking why they hadn’t been paid properly by the music industry for their work in the first place, instead buckled and said that, yes, this all sounded like a great idea.

I’m not saying I want the guy who played violin on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ to go hungry, but there is something of a smoke screen here. Session musicians earn by far the lowest cut of these royalties, featured artists make more, but the bulk of the money still goes to the record label.

Now, I’m not going to a launch into a tirade about “greedy record labels”, because people who do that are among the most irritating on earth. Besides, if greed is your main motivator, there are better businesses to be in. And I can see exactly why the majors don’t want to give up the revenues 50 year old recordings generate. The record industry still dominates within the wider music business when it comes to launching new talent, ie it still generally invests the most money and takes much of the risk (even if both investments and levels of risk are less than they once were). And that label system works by taking some of the profits of older hits and investing them in new records, some of which will be profitable, some of which will not.

In many ways it’s a good system, though if the labels are really still relying on The Beatles to fund the launch of the next generation of Coldplays, I’m not sure it’s working as well as it could and should. I mean, how long does this system need its copyrights to last to be viable? Because the copyright has to run out eventually, and perhaps labels should just accept that fact and put their efforts into finding new ways to make the label system work, one that doesn’t rely on endless royalties from very old songs.

And let’s not forget, that when copyrights expire, it can result in a whole new era of creativity as new artists rediscover the work of old artists that are now out of copyright. What’s to say that the next big wave in music wouldn’t be based on samples of 60s recordings, on which no label licence would now be required? Hip hop and drum n bass have both benefitted from the use of out of copyright samples, so who knows what delights we could have enjoyed had producers suddenly had freer access to the 1960s catalogue. Still, there could still be a whole burgeoning underground scene based on Cliff Richard’s already out of copyright 50s recordings about to blow up right now. I sincerely hope so.

I suppose my point is this. I don’t begrudge artists and session musicians another 20 years of royalties, and maybe not even the record labels. But while active sound recording copyrights aid innovation as labels use yesterday’s hits to fund tomorrow’s acts, copyrights expiring can also result in, and force, other kinds of innovation, both commercial and creative, and it’s that kind of thing the music industry could probably do with just now. If only to ensure that in 20 years time EMI isn’t still saying it can only invest in new bands if it is still earning money from Beatles songs.

This is taken from my weekly editorial feature for CMU. You can see the original here.

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