Marcus Evans Group | Worldwide Headquarters | American Offices | Latin America | European Offices | African / Asian Offices

Copyright extension is welcome, but it doesn’t go far enough

Extending musicians’ copyright term from 50 to 70 years is a step in the right direction. But none of it will matter until the European parliament gets serious about copyright enforcement

No one can accuse the European parliament of moving too fast. Three years ago I wrote about the European commission’s attempts to bring the copyright term of sound recordings in line with the US – where the duration of copyright is 95 years from first publication – and with songwriters’ copyright term. In 2009, the European parliament adopted the directive of extending the term from 50 to 70 years, but it wasn’t until Monday that it voted through the legislation – and it still won’t be implemented until 2014.

The unfortunately named “Cliff’s law” will, however, make less of a difference to artists such as Paul McCartney and Cliff Richards than it will for smaller artists and session musicians in Europe who have worked all their lives but never had access to a company pension scheme. After all, session players only get (tiny) royalties from public performances of their work, such as radio – not from sales.

No musicians demand to get paid for work they’ve done that no one is interested in. But if the copyright term ends after 50 years, their music could be used to sell products in commercials or be used in political campaigns for, say, the BNP without them being able to prevent it.

Often when royalties and copyright are discussed, people say: “I only get paid once for my work, why should musicians get paid for the rest of their lives for work they did when they were 20 years old?” What they don’t understand is that musicians spend thousands of unpaid hours working on and developing their music. They only get paid if the music is used or bought – I can’t think of a fairer system than that – and they receive their money in micro-payments (sometimes less than a penny) that hopefully will add up to a living wage. The majority of Musicians’ Union members make less than £16,000 a year. No one I know became a musician for the money, but if their music is played around the world all through their lives (the brass section on All You Need Is Love, for example) they deserve to not live in poverty.

I’m pleased the European parliament understands the reality facing musicians. The terms of its directive include “a substantial new fund for session musicians from record company revenues in the extended term”, a requirement for labels to ensure all recordings are commercially available, failing which the artist will be entitled to release their recordings themselves, and a “clean slate” for featured artists, writing off any unrecouped advances so artists receive full royalties in the extended term.

However, I don’t think the directive went far enough. “Full royalties” for many artists signed in the 50s, 60s and the 70s, can be as low as 5%. I would have liked to see copyright revert to the artist from the label after 50 years.

A US copyright law, which came into effect in 1978, gives artists and songwriters control of their master recordings andcompositions after 35 years under “termination rights”. Record labels and publishers aren’t always happy with this and often argue that artists are “workers for hire” and therefore have no rights to any share ownership of the recordings. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Don Henley pointed out the flaws of this argument: “They don’t provide health insurance for us. They don’t pay social security for us. They don’t withhold taxes from our royalty checks. They don’t provide us a place of employment. It’s a real stretch for the record companies to claim we’re employees. We’re independent contractors.” They don’t provide any pension scheme either.

Yet when technocrats protest about European copyright extension, it’s worth pointing out that copyright, in effect, lasts for less than a day. As soon as a record is released, often before that even happens, it’s available on illegal downloading and streaming sites from which the hosts earn advertising money and, sometimes, subscription fees, while artists, producers, session players and songwriters earn nothing. Until the European parliament does something about copyright enforcement this new directive will mean little for the artists it aims to protect. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds