Release The Music

The Open Rights Group has set up a website, Release The Music, to campaign against the attempt by the record industry to extend the copyright period on sound recordings. I've been blogging about this issue for the last couple of days but the ORG site has a briefing that covers some things I haven't mentioned. They begin with a great statement of the case:

Copyright is a bargain. In exchange for releasing sound recordings to the public, copyright holders are granted a limited monopoly during which they can pursue anyone who uses their recordings without permission. But when this time is up, these works join Shakespeare, Shelley and Bernard Shaw in the proper place for all human culture ? the public domain.

The public domain is about to benefit from its half of this bargain, as tracks from a golden age of recorded sound reach the end of their copyright term. Seminal soul, reggae and rock and roll recordings will soon be freed from legal restrictions, allowing anyone to preserve, reissue and remix them.

The ORG briefing goes on to point out that the music industry has offered no evidence to support its claim:

In 2005, the Royal Society of Arts sponsored an international commission of experts from the creative industries, law, economics, science, technology and the public sector to produce The Adelphi Charter, a framework for policy makers who are considering changing their IP legislation. The Charter urges governments to automatically presume against extending the scope or term of IPRs, stating that ?the burden of proof in such cases must lie on the advocates of change?, who should provide rigorous analysis which clearly demonstrates that any extension would be in the economic and civil interest of the public at large.

But despite this clear guidance, those asking the government to extend the length of copyright term for sound recordings have published no compelling evidence or analysis. Instead, the arguments they have presented to the Gowers Review collapse under even passing scrutiny.

Major labels argue that revenues from copyrighted recordings allow them to take risks with new artists but, as the ORG briefing demonstrates, it isn't the major labels who are doing the innovating:

Three of the seven debuts from the best-selling albums chart mentioned by the BPI were nurtured by independent labels who had existed for less than twenty years between them, i.e. 43% of successful debuts came from labels within that 15% market share. And a 17-year-old record label, Warp Records, won this year’s Digital Music Awards for their music store, bleep.com. None of these innovative companies has ancient back catalogue earnings to rely upon when finding money to invest in new ventures, and none of them will benefit from extending the term on sound recordings.

Next the briefing skewers the claim that royalties from past works serve as a pension for washed-up rock stars. As the ORG points out, 80 per cent of recordings do not earn any royalties for the artist - it's part of the ingenious way that the record industry screws artists. So what about the other 20 per cent?

Industry revenue figures are shrouded in secrecy, but some evidence on the 20 per cent of artists who do earn royalties can be found. For example, out of 15,500 artists surveyed for the Monopoly and Mergers Commission in 1996, only 16.5 per cent were likely to earn more than £1,000 that year in royalties, with under 2 per cent earning more than £20,000. Bear in mind that these figures did not specify how many of these royalty payments were for tracks recorded over fifty years ago: it seems safe to assume that these would make up only a tiny fraction of total royalty revenues.

So why does Sir Cliff Richard, a high profile campaigner for term extension, characterise sound recording royalties as a ?pension for artists?? What figures are available show that extension would be of help only to Sir Cliff and a tiny number of other already highly successful artists.

So copyright extensions won't help artists and, the briefing goes on to explain, they won't help fans either. A recording is far more likely to be made available to the public once it falls out of copyright:

A survey by Tim Brooks on reissues of pre-1945 sound recordings across the US (where they are still protected by copyright) and the EU (where they’re not) showed that for every five-year period, non-rightsholders have issued more historical recordings than rightsholders at a ratio of close to two to one.

And copyright extensions will make it harder to preserve our culture:

As well as being economically illogical, extending the term on sound recordings would also privatise and could even destroy vast swathes of British cultural heritage. Because of the inadequacy of existing provisions in copyright law, the British Library Sound Archive, one of the largest such archives in the world, is unable to digitise sound recordings still under copyright without seeking individual permissions from existing rightsholders. Although digitisation is important for preservation, the size of the sound archive and the cost of clearing the rights means that such a process is too expensive for the majority of recordings. So digitisation is put on hold, endangering the education, inspiration and enjoyment of future generations.

It's worth reading the whole thing. It's a very compelling argument against giving in to a few greedy major labels.