Extending copyright is music to major labels' ears

Fri, Jan 23, 2009, 00:00

WIRED:Plan to extend terms of copyright may benefit media firms, but artists and fans will lose out, writes Danny O'Brien

IN 1998, Sonny Bono’s wife, Mary Bono, called on US Congress to grant artists a perpetual copyright on their works. When she was informed this was unconstitutional, she asked for an increase of 20 years. She wasn’t alone in her request. Bono’s law became known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” because lobbyist Disney used it to keep hold of the copyright on the oldest Mickey Mouse cartoons.

That 1998 term extension was actually an attempt to trump Europe, which three years previously had upped its own copyright terms. Now Europe is intending to outbid the US again, as lobbyists for media companies attempt to reach Bono’s goal of a permanent privatisation of our cultural heritage. The reckoning after Bono was that US copyright lasted 70 years after the death of an author – up from 50 years – or 95 years from publication if the creator was a corporation.

Charlie McCreevy’s new Copyright Term Extension Directive is due to be debated in the European Parliament early this year, with Irish MEP Brian Crowley guiding it through to its final vote. The directive will increase the length of the few music copyrights that remain at 50 years to 95 years plus life.

McCreevy’s new directive could be better known as the “music label preservation order”, since it is designed to shuttle back into the record label’s possession the recordings of the first rock’n’roll songs, which are now beginning to fall out of copyright.

Copyright term extension is a policy that most economic experts, left and right, agree has given little benefit to artists and a lot to major media companies seeking to eke out an income from their back catalogue.

Since the first complaints were raised in 1998, the arguments have grown louder and stronger against copyright term extension.

We now know, through the rise of the net, that works can spread and can be protected by allowing them to be duplicated and spread by those who love them.

The public domain – the free space that all copyrighted works fall into after their time is up – is flourishing. It’s easier to find a work that’s fallen out of copyright (like Night of the Living Dead, a 1968 film that fell into the public domain due to administrative error), than to obtain a paid-for copy of many VHS classics.

Meanwhile, old films – not just Mickey Mouse – that should have entered the public domain by now, allowing them to be freely copied and preserved are literally fading away, rotting as single copies in film studio vaults.

But is giving rightsholders another chance to make a buck a bad thing? McCreevy would say not. He argued that extending copyright is a moral act, giving the living artists a pension they might not otherwise have. The truth is the majority of individual artists will gain €0.50 – €20 a year in “windfall” term extension profits.

The only real earnings will be made by millionaire musicians and the labels. When we nearly double the monopoly control of companies over artistic works, we aren’t simply pulling profits out of thin air. The money comes from the billions extra that will be billed to shops, restaurants and others who will pay more for music.

McCreevy’s extension attempts to mitigate some of this damage. It has a “lose it or use it” provision that would pass copyright back to the musicians if the labels do not publish their work, and a cumbersome fund run by the labels intended to help the musicians whose original label contracts left them without pensions – an act, it would seem, similar to placing vampires in charge of a blood bank.

But such bureaucracies merely raise the burden on producing new music, or discovering how to use the old. No wonder Andrew Gowers, the man who held a far-reaching investigation into copyright reform for the British government, called the proposals “out of touch with reality” and Prof Bernt Hugenholtz, who advises the EU on copyright matters, called McCreevy’s directive a “deliberate attempt to mislead Europe’s Parliament”.

But how does such a bad idea get so far? The greatest issue facing opponents of copyright term extension is that the large cost of the policy is spread thinly among future generations, while those who profit are concentrated in a handful of large, contemporary corporations.

It’s a stacked deck: there’s no union of future musicians arguing for their promised right to 50 years of source material. There’s no league of imaginary archivists, pointing out how recordings that would otherwise be preserved and spread within the public domain will vanish in a dozen years of music label neglect.

When such powerful lobbyists call for a law solely in their own interests, the only thing that can stop them are politicians willing to fight for the public good.

You would think McCreevy and Crowley would recognise this as their job rather than sacrificing our heritage to the dinosaur corporations of the rock’n’roll age.