Record labels: seeking new ways to screw fans and artists

The issue of copyright extensions for recorded music is back again. There's a lot that I want to say about this so I'm going to do it over a few posts. I'll start off with a slightly re-written version of a post I made on my now defunct Music Radar blog back in March: A group of music veterans are once again lobbying for the extension of copyright protection from the existing 50 years to the 95 years that America introduced in 1998.

The stars, including Sir Cliff Richard, Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball, are upset that they stop getting paid for their work after a mere half century. The rest of us stop getting paid for our work when we finish it but that’s pop stars for you.

Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson told The Telegraph last March:

Probably 40 per cent of the greatest music you have ever heard came out of this little country of ours. But once it disappears into the public domain it becomes instantly devalued because you, I or the bloke next door could set up a little record company and, with complete impunity, sell that music for £1.99 and pay not a penny in royalties.

Ian is talking nonsense. The idea of work "disappearing" into the public domain is laughable - there are vast numbers of copyrighted recordings that are sitting in record company archives because the label that owns the copyright doesn’t consider it to be financially viable to release them.

Once a work is out of copyright it becomes a cultural artifact. Far from disappearing, it becomes something we can all enjoy for a minimal fee. Something that others can be inspired by, remix and learn from. That’s what creative culture has been about for hundreds of years and these has-beens are fighting to destroy that.

Anderson continues:

…the unsung heroes of the 1950s depend on royalties to pay heating and nursing home bills.

Well plenty of pensioners have to pay heating and nursing home bills. And they don’t have the luxury of getting paid for work they did fifty years ago.

A growing number of people, myself included, think that, far from being extended, copyright needs to be cut back. It has been twisted and exploited far beyond what it was originally intended to achieve. Max Barry, author of the novel Jennifer Government, makes a good case:

Copyright extensions, of the kind popping up everywhere lately, have nothing to do with encouraging more creative work, and everything to do with protecting the revenue streams of media companies that, a few generations ago, had an executive smart enough to sniff out a popular hit. It’s a grab for cash at the public’s expense.

The fact that there is any posthumous copyright protection at all proves that the law is intended to benefit people who are not the original creator: that is, heirs and corporations. The fact that copyright extensions retroactively apply to already-created works proves they’re not meant to encourage innovation. The only reason copyright extension laws keep getting passed is because the people and companies that became fabulously rich through someone else’s idea are using that wealth to lobby government for more of it.

I’d make copyright a flat ten years. You come up with a novel, a song, a movie, whatever: you have ten years to make a buck out of it. After that, anyone can make copies, or create spin-offs, or produce the movie version, or whatever.

Now that would be an incentive. You’d see all kinds of new art, both during the copyright period, as artists rush to make the most of their creation, and after, when everybody else can build on what they’ve done and make something new. You’d see much cheaper versions of books and movies that were a decade old. You wouldn’t have the descendants of some writer refusing to allow new media featuring the Daleks, or Tintin, or whatever. And artists with massive hits would be merely rich, not super-rich.

He's writing from an American perspective but the principles are the same. I agree with him, except I'd be happy with a twenty year copyright term rather than ten. Of course, there's no chance of copyright terms being decreased. The best we can hope for is that they won't be increased any further.

This argument has blown up before. Then even The Times - hardly known for its liberal, free culture outlook, came down against the music industry:

[Record labels] are wilfully ignoring the vital creative role of the public domain in reinvigorating our common culture. Had they been genuinely innovative over the past decade — beyond discovering Crazy Frog and “girl power” — the moguls would have noticed that their industry’s greatest injections of energy have originated not within their own well-cushioned empires but in the public domain.

Remember their aversion to MP3 downloads, now a vast corporate revenue stream? Or the copyright-breaching “mash-ups” — unauthorised combinations of existing music samples mixed by DJs — that first attracted music industry writs, and then were worked into Kylie’s routine?

Digital technologies are merely amplifying the historic tendency towards mixing and sampling that has shaped works from Macbeth to Mickey Mouse. Once creative works are in the public domain, people frequently make wonderful new things with them — a process denied by the encroachment of corporate interests through copyright extensions.

Would West Side Story have been made if Shakespeare’s heirs could protect Romeo and Juliet? Would Frank Capra ’s It’s A Wonderful Life have been reinvented as a Christmas TV classic had it not slipped out of copyright in 1975 and been rediscovered by a new generation who could buy it cheaply on VHS?

At the risk of boring you, I'll post more links on this topic over the next few days.