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.

Don't even THINK about stealing this movie

I went to the cinema for the first time in ages yesterday. I probably go the cinema once every couple of months, which is just long enough to forget the lectures you have to sit through these days before you're allowed to watch the film. There were no less than four reminders that it's illegal to use recording equipment to pirate the movie. And thank god there were four: I was dead set on pirating the film all through the first three but the fourth one, with Bradley Grey's starving daughter weeping into her gruel, persuaded me to put away my video camera.

In amongst those I also got a stern talking-to from the Government about the dangers of drinking and driving. It's just as well they took the trouble - more than two-thirds of the adverts that followed were for alcoholic drinks.

Then we got to the highlight: an advert explaining why it's better to watch a film at the cinema than at home on a pirated DVD. Now remember, I'm watching this advert at the cinema so it's fair to assume that I probably agree with them. It's all those people who aren't at the cinema they need to be talking to.

But of course they're doing that too. On Saturday night I watched a film on DVD and got warned not to download movies first. I couldn't skip the ad and couldn't fastforward it. Apparently, the price I paid to watch the disc was not enough to buy the right to avoid being harangued.

"You wouldn't steal a car," the advert yelled at me. Wouldn't I? How do you know?

The movie industry (and the music industry come to that but they deserve a post of their own so I'll do that another time) seems to be under the impression that we are all basically dishonest. We're waiting for the chance to rip them off and the only way to avoid it is to bombard us with warnings to keep us on the straight-and-narrow.

Why do they suppose people watch pirated DVDs and download movies? It certainly isn't for the quality. It's about convenience. It's about avoiding the ridiculous wait Britons have to endure before a movie opens here. Or it's about saving the £50 it costs to take a family to the cinema.

Now, none of those things make it ok to pirate movies. I agree with the film industry that piracy is wrong. But maybe, instead of lecturing the law-abiding, the film industry could think about new business models which would render piracy obsolete.

How about synchronising release dates worldwide so UK viewers don't have a six-month wait to see movies? Or what about going even further and releasing movies on DVD on the same day they come out at the cinema? After all, if watching a film at the cinema is as good as you say, then what do you have to worry about?

They won't of course. If you tried something radical and it didn't work, you'd lose your job. Nobody ever got fired for blaming piracy.

I'm reading six years' worth of books

I've pointed out before that attempting to read 26 books in a year is actually a pretty mundane feat. But I may have to revise my opinion if a new survey by Penguin books is to be believed. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Penguin Classics, the publisher conducted a survey of British reading habits. They found that those who consider themselves to be "heavy readers" finish just four books a year, while "medium readers" manage two and "light readers" just one.

It may be that what we have here is a flawed survey of some sort. It would be interesting to know how many people they interviewed and what the selection criteria were. However, what I suspect happened is that Penguin asked people whether they considered themselves to be 'heavy', 'medium' or 'light' readers and then followed that up with a question about, say, how many books they finished last year. Those interviewed probably just overrated themselves as readers and didn't realise it until they thought about how many books they'd been reading.

At least I hope that's the explanation. It can't really be the case that a British "heavy reader" manages only one book every three months can it? Nora Roberts writes more books than that every year - never the best indicator of quality, I admit, but readers could learn a thing or two from her dedication.

Don't look at the nasty breast, darling

American parenting magazine, Babytalk, received 1,000 outraged responses after they put a picture of a baby being breastfed on the cover of their magazine. Gayle Ash, 41, told AFP she wanted to protect her 13-year-old son. She wimpered: "I shredded it. A breast is a breast - it's a sexual thing. He didn't need to see that."

Kelly Wheatley, 40, is apparently more concerned about her husband, who must have led a very sheltered life. She droned: "Men are very visual. When they see a woman's breast, they see a breast - regardless of what it's being used for."

Now I can just about understand the teenage boy thing. Just saying the word 'breast' in front of a 13-year-old boy can have alarming results. But a grown man?

However, given the mind-boggling prudishness of these women, it's possible that their husbands haven't actually seen a breast in 20 years.

It falls to Babytalk editor Susan Kane to inject a little intelligence into the conversation: "There's a huge Puritanical streak in Americans and there's a squeamishness about seeing a body part - even part of a body part.

"It's not like women are whipping them out with tassels on them! Mostly, they are trying to be discreet."

Where's the 757? It's right there...

A couple of months back I blogged about 9/11 conspiracy theorists and their refusal to accept the notion that the Pentagon was hit by an airliner rather than a missile or, who knows, Dick Cheney's laser-beam eyes. Mike J Wilson has made a detailed video which combines photographs of the scene with 3D animation to reconstruct events. If you're a sceptic, you're probably beyond help but I think this is a fascinating piece of work.