Keeping the Status Quo?

In the latest episode of what has been a long-running debate, this first wave of rock stars and the session musicians who played on their hits welcomed last week’s vote from the European Parliament voted to extend performance copyright from 50 to 70 years from the date of recording following a campaign led by, amongst others, Status Quo, Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Cliff Richard.

 The move has sparked its fair share of controversy after the Gowers Review on Intellectual Property, commissioned in 2006, looked at potential reform of the copyright system and recommended that the term of protection remain at 50 years. Original proposals by the EU suggested an extension of the term to 95 years, which led to disputes between the member states and the compromise of the 70-year figure.

It’s probably fair to say that when the Copyright Legislation was amended in the 1980s, many commentators may not have expected music from the 50s to still be making money for its creators well into the 21st century – mainly because most cultural commentators thought that Rock & Roll would only turn out to be a fad.  Not only that, but technology has advanced far faster than anyone could have predicted, making music available over a much wider range of platforms and on a track-by-track basis rather than only as albums or singles. Music has far greater longevity now than ever before, which artists believe should allow them to continue earning well into their old age.

It’s easy to come out on the side of the artists here, but we should bear in mind that the extension will only apply to copyright in the recording of a song. Apart from this, songwriters are also protected by the fact that the lyrics and music making up the song in question will also be separately protected. This will mean that acts who write their own work such as the Rolling Stones or Elton John will be able to earn royalties for a period of 70 years after their death. Given that Sir Cliff and some of the other acts pushing for the extension worked with outside producers and songwriters (including acclaimed songwriter Lionel Bart), then it’s not surprising that they’re keen to keep earning royalties from their recordings as long as possible in an environment where new audiences may be discovering their work for the first time.

Basically, artists who don’t write their own material will depend upon royalties for their work as their main source of income apart from touring. The point then, appears to be that if they really want to control their own destiny and make as much out of their catalogue as they can, artists should come up with their own material where possible and if not, buy out the copyright in the material which is written for them as soon as they can. In an environment where Musicians are struggling to make any income from their music if their new albums are leaked online, these proposals are meant to keep artists creating new music and widen consumer choice. Time will tell if this turns out to be the case.

It’ll be very interesting to see how this pans out if for no other reason than the Music Industry is now starting to seriously clamp down on copyright infringement generally and in the last major review of this area of law, it was felt that 50 years was long enough. In any event, the fact that the limit is staying at 50 years for the time being will mean that some recordings, such as Cliff Richard’s most iconic hits, are already losing their protection. Whether the artists or the industry in general is the real winner here remains to be seen.

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