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Who benefits from extending the copyright term for sound recordings?

Record labels and mega-rich performers could cash in on change pioneered by Cliff Richard

So finally the music industry has managed to get by with a little help from a few friends. Label bosses may not have succeeded in the battle to cut off the internet connections to homes of families whose teenage children illegally download a few Eminem tracks, but they have at last prevailed in a decade-long battle to persuade Brussels to increase the copyright term for sound recordings from 50 years to 70.

Songwriters and composers are already guaranteed royalties on their recordings for life plus 70 years. The new ruling by the EU’s Council of Ministers means that, from 2013, artists of the 1960s who were not talented enough to pen their own music and garnered income only through performing the songs of others will no longer face losing their royalty this decade, but will keep receiving a payment until the 2030s.

The lead singer of this group is Sir Cliff Richard, who despite releasing plenty of 1960s hits, including Summer Holiday and Congratulations, penned only a handful himself. It has become a tradition to christen laws rectifying wrongdoing in the name of the victim. And so, the new regulation setting right this historic injustice was immediately baptised as Cliff’s Law, in recognition of the perennial Bachelor Boy’s tireless campaigning for the right to keep adding to his £50m fortune until, in the case of his later recordings, well after his 140th birthday.

In a careful lobbying effort, the record labels have claimed that their motivation for the change has not been to safeguard Richard, but the incomes of jobbing session musicians, such as Raphael Ravenscroft, who played the saxophone solo on Baker Street, and Sheila Bromberg, who played the harp on the Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home. Bromberg faced losing her royalty income for the song after 2017 and, as she says in a heartrending quote, helpfully supplied by the industry: “It may not be huge sums of money but to an OAP as I am, it is welcome.”

In fact, there are only two groups of people who will receive huge sums of money as a result of an extended term: the record labels and the multi- millionaire mega-acts. According to one academic, professor Martin Kretschmer of Bournemouth University, even if you extended the limit to 95 years, the bottom 80% of performers would still take home less than £50 per year.

There is one reason alone for the industry’s desperate scramble to amend the law: the impending expiry of the copyrights to a golden generation of musicians including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, all of whose valuable back catalogues, under the old 50-year rule, would begin to drift into the public domain in Britain this decade.

That is the conclusion of Andrew Gowers, the former Financial Times editor who carried out the last serious investigation into term length, as part of a 2006 government review. Gowers says: “I believe the lobbying is built around a relatively small number of works from the time in question, like the Beatles, which are still selling. There are very few examples of that kind of lasting effect. It is ever clearer that artists and music companies earn the vast majority in the first couple of years of a work’s release.

“This is the issue that never dies. It is a very well organised, small group of people in whose interest it is to extend the term. But it is the broader public who will pay. The costs of doing so are not so obvious but they are considerable.”

The Gowers Review concluded that, given the fees owed by anyone who wants to make use of copyrighted music, extending the term “would increase costs for all businesses that play music, for example hairdressers, old people’s homes, local radio and internet service providers. The impact of extension would therefore be felt throughout the economy.”

Gowers says he wanted to reduce the term to around 20 years, but that it would have been politically undeliverable. “No one is going to be de-incentivised to make music,” he says. “No one can say that the Beatles would not have recorded Love Me Do if they only got 30 rather than 50 years of rights for it. It is ludicrous.”

The record industry says that the new change to the law will result in “tens of millions” of pounds in extra revenue over the next 20 years. The Gowers Review warned that “most of the increased revenue from term extension would come directly from consumers who would pay higher prices for longer”.

Although there is an argument that anybody who wants to buy a Cliff Richard record deserves to be ripped off, British consumers already face a grim enough decade without any extra pressure on their purses – particularly when the chief beneficiaries have already made their millions. © 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