Copyright Extension

The British Phonographic Industry wants to extend the length of copyright currently applied to sound recordings. But such a move would impede our cultural heritage, says Becky Hogge.

By Becky Hogge

Last month, Elvis Presley got to number three in the UK charts with the re-release of That's All Right fifty years after it was first laid down at Memphis' Sun Studios. 2004 is the last year BMG (owners of the rights to the track) will be able to profit, exclusively at least, from this recording, because on 1 January 2005, That's All Right falls out of copyright and into the public domain.

Before you all reach for your samplers, take heed. The recording itself is the only thing becoming free goods. Unless you want a big, fat lawsuit on your hands, you cannot sample it to create new works until 70 years after the artist's death – 2049 in this case. But anybody in the EU could release the original track without recourse to BMG.

Copyright on sound recordings lasts for fifty years under current EU law, but the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) want this law changed. The chairman of the BPI dubbed the success of the Elvis re-release a 'call to arms' for industry, and lobbying is already underway to convince the EU to extend the terms. Newspapers across the UK have dubbed the law a 'loophole'. Had they had the chance to look beyond their helpful industry press releases they would have realised it is anything but.

The vast majority of tracks recorded in 1954 would not have the power to even chart if they were commercially released in 2005. Extending the terms of copyright on these tracks – which is what would happen if the industry gets its way – just ensures they remain locked up and rotting in record label basements for a further fifty years. Isn't this a little bit crazy, when there are music archivists ready and willing to digitize them and put them online? This is our cultural heritage, after all, why chuck it into a commercial vacuum when it could be enjoying a second birth, coursing (entirely legally) through a p2p network and inspiring a whole new generation of fans?

Well, say the BPI, because otherwise we might lose out on profits, and we've had a really tough time recently, what with the interweb stealing our music [exactly when did the EU become an agony aunt for flailing industry dinosaurs? On second thoughts, don't answer that one]. And if we lose out on profits, well gosh darnit, how are we ever going to find the money to invest in new talent? [okay, you mean like Girls Aloud and Natasha Bedingfield? Sure, right, tracking them down must have been really hard.] Well, yes it was actually, you should have seen the amount we had to spend on marketing just to get those talents off the ground. [No, really?] And anyway, what about the artists who record the songs? Don't they deserve a pension? [pssst... BPI? Elvis is dead.]

Seriously, so long as a record company continues to invest in artists with lasting appeal, their back catalogue naturally expands. Keeping the cycle at 50 years ensures that record company's focus their investment on these types of artists, rather than rely on the heavily marketed one-hit-wonders of recent times.  The industry contends that artists have a longer life expectancy and therefore need royalties from previous work to supplement their pensions. But it should be obvious that the only artists who will be generating significant profits for their record companies fifty years after the fact are the megastars like Presley. If the fortunes they earned at the peak of their careers didn't kill them, then surely it set them up for the future? Worrying about their pensions seems about as important as worrying about how David Beckham will get by once he hangs up his boots.

Meanwhile, the fifty year limit means that archivists can get busy digitising the songs of the 50s and 60s and giving them a new lease of life in the public domain. The Internet Archive has already digitized 500,000 old 78s and is ready to put them online. This is what copyright law is all about – it was framed to foster the public domain. Artists get a limited period of time where rights to their work are exclusive to them, giving them the incentive to create. After that time, the works fall into the public domain, becoming the creative mulch that nourishes and inspires new works. Think of it like patent law: an inventor is allowed a limited term to exploit his idea (in this country its 14 years), then others are free to build on it. The system is balanced, and that balance promotes progress.

Industry knew the rules when it started playing the game. A term limited to 50 years provided enough incentive for Elvis, the Beatles and The Stones to record their songs. As Electronic Frontier Foundation coordinator Cory Doctorow puts it 'It is unequivocally true that giving the Beatles 40 more years won’t make them write any more songs. We have to ask ourselves, what new windfall comes to the public if we give back to these organisations this body of material that is soon to be rightfully ours?' The trouble is, of course, that the copyrights belong to industries with lots of lobbying power behind them, and the public domain belongs to, well, us. Unless the stakeholders of the public domain (that's us again) put pressure on the EU to keep the law as it is, it is highly likely that Elvis won't be leaving the building any time soon.
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