Monday, 12 September 2011

The sound of inevitability

Documents (.pdf) from the Council of the European Union released today have announced what many copyright, copyleft and copyfight activists had long expected - namely that the protection given to the owners of musical productions has been extended from 50 years to 70 years.  This has the ring of inevitability as there is an established precedent for extending copyright terms whenever they come close to expiring. More often than not theses extension terms are dressed up in the rhetoric of protecting artists, but more often than not, the term 'artists' is little short of being synonymous with 'multinational corporations'.

Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group says of the matter:
Despite the rhetoric, small artists will gain very little from this, while our cultural heritage takes a massive blow by denying us full access to these recordings for another generation.
Two recent reviews by British governments (Gowers, December 2006 and Hargreaves, May 2011) have examined the support for such protection and have been highly skeptical regarding the supposed benefits further extensions offer smaller artists. The more recent of the two reviews was very clear on this point:

Copyright Term Extension
Economic evidence is clear that the likely deadweight loss to the economy exceeds any additional incentivising effect which might result from the extension of copyright term beyond its present levels.  This is doubly clear for retrospective extension to copyright term, given the impossibility of incentivising the creation of already existing works, or work from artists already dead. 
Despite this, there are frequent proposals to increase term, such as the current proposal to extend protection for sound recordings in Europe from 50 to 70 or even 95 years.  The UK Government assessment found it to be economically detrimental.  An international study found term extension to have no impact on output.
Hargreaves Review of Intellectual Property and Growth, Chapter 2, Section 2.16, page 19

PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey, 2008
© Phil King, Flickr
Whether a creative artist contemplates the economic benefit of copyright duration before they embark upon making music is hard to believe. It's unlikely that the likes of King CreosoteJames Blake or PJ Harvey (Mercury Music Prize nominees and winner respectively) contemplate creating music before deciding against it on the basis that 50 years worth of music protection is insufficient, and that they require 70 years of protection in order to ensure their creativity is realised.

Additionally, how does retroactively extending the duration of copyright terms help to incentivise musicians who have already made music? Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, etc all made music that many people found inspirational under very different contexts, and now that they are deceased the duration of the protections afforded to the owners of their copyrighted work has been extended further - most likely to benefit the interests of bloated publishers and distributers.

The new extension does offer more protection to those musicians working in groups.  The new terms state that the "term of protection will expire 70 years after the death of the last person to survive: the author of the lyrics or the composer of the music". Given that 2012 was the year that many seminal pieces of music from the 1960s (ie The Beatles and The Rolling Stones) were due thought to be about to enter the public domain, it's perhaps inevitable that copyright protection has been extended ever further. Ringo and Paul might breathe a sigh of relief as their individual longevity benefits them both. It's a fairly safe prediction that around 2030 there will be highly vocal lobbying on behalf of the recording industry to extend the new terms to 95 years, or forever less one day.

What is worth noting from the EU Council minutes is that a number of countries did vote against the proposals (ie, Belgium, Sweden, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Slovakia and Slovenia) while a couple abstained from the vote (Estonia and Austria). This hardly reads like a unanimous vote - Directive 2006/116/EC seems to have scraped through. More than 17000 signatories also constituted a vocal part of the call to reject the extension term via the Sound Copyright campaign, but it seems like the industry has won yet another pyrrhic victory.

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