The final countdown
The we-thought-it-was-dead specter of copyright term extension in sound recordings has done a Diabolique maneuver and been voted alive by the European Council. In a few days, the Council of Ministers could make it EU law because, as can happen under the inscrutable government structures of the EU, opposition has melted away.
At stake is the extension of copyright in sound recordings from 50 years to 70, something the Open Rights Group has been fighting since it was born. The push to extend it above 50 years has been with us for at least five years; originally the proposal was to take it to 95 years. An extension from 50 to 70 years is modest by comparison, but given the way these things have been going over the last 50 years, that would buy the recording industry 20 years in which to lobby for the 95 years they originally wanted, and then 25 years to lobby for the line to be moved further. Why now? A great tranche of commercially popular recordings is up for entry into the public domain: Elvis Presley's earliest recordings date to 1956, and The Beatles' first album came out in 1963; their first singles are 50 years old this year. It's not long after that to all the great rock records of the 1970s.
My fellow Open Rights Group advisory council member Paul Sanders, has up a concise little analysis about what's wrong here. Basically, it's never jam today for the artists, but jam yesterday, today, and tomorrow for the recording companies. I have commented frequently on the fact that the more record companies are able to make nearly pure profit on their back catalogues whose sunk costs have long ago been paid, the more new, young artists are required to compete for their attention with an ever-expanding back catalogue. I like Sanders' language on this: "redistributive, from younger artists to older and dead ones".
In recent years, we've heard a lof of the mantra "evidence-based policy" from the UK government. So, in the interests of ensuring this evidence-based policy the UK government is so keen on, here is some. The good news is they commissioned it themselves, so it ought to carry a lot of weight with them. Right? Right.
There have been two major British government reports studying the future of copyright and intellectual property law generally in the last five years: the Gowers Review, published in 2006, and the Hargreaves report was commissioned in November 2010 and released in May 2011.
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.14 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.
Such an extension was opposed by the Gowers Review and by published studies commissioned by the European Commission.
Ah, yes, Gowers and its 54 recommendations, many or most of which have been largely ignored. (Government policy seems to have embraced "strengthening of IP rights, whether through clamping down on piracy" to the exclusion of things like "improving the balance and flexibility of IP rights to allow individuals, businesses, and institutions to use content in ways consistent with the digital age".
Recommendation 3: The European Commission should retain the length of protection on sound recordings and performers' rights at 50 years.
Recommendation 4: Policy makers should adopt the principle that the term and scope of protection for IP rights should not be altered retrospectively.
I'd use the word "retroactive", myself, but the point is the same. Copyright is a contract with society: you get the right to exploit your intellectual property for some number of years, and in return after that number of years your work belongs to the society whose culture helped produce it. Trying to change an agreed contract retroactively usually requires you to show that the contract was not concluded in good faith, or that someone is in breach. Neither of those situations applies here, and I don't think these large companies with their in-house lawyers, many of whom participated in drafting prior copyright law, can realistically argue that they didn't understand the provisions. Of course, this recommendation cuts both ways: if we can't put Elvis's earliest recordings back into copyright, thereby robbing the public domain, we also can't shorten the copyright protection that applies to recordings created with the promise of 50 years' worth of protection.
This whole mess is a fine example of policy laundering: shopping the thing around until you either wear out the opposition or find sufficient champions. The EU, with its Hampton Court maze of interrelated institutions, could have been deliberately designed to facilitate this. You can write to your MP, or even your MEP - but the sad fact is that the shiny, new EU government is doing all this in old-style backroom deals.