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Canada set to increase sound recording copyright term to 70 years

By | Published on Thursday 23 April 2015


Canada is set to follow Europe in extending the copyright term enjoyed by sound recordings from the current 50 years up to 70 years. The country’s federal government announced that very plan amongst a list of other intellectual property measures in its 2015 budget statement earlier this week.

And if you don’t believe me, look, here are the government’s actual words: “Economic Action Plan 2015 also proposes to amend the Copyright Act to extend the term of protection of sound recordings and performances from 50 to 70 years following the first release of the sound recording, so that performers and record labels are fairly compensated for the use of their music for an additional 20 years”.

Why not make a recording of yourself saying those words and enjoy a whole extra 20 years of copyright protection? And in Canada, no less.

As previously reported, record companies in Europe lobbied hard for over a decade to get the sound recording copyright term extended beyond 50 years, not least because the still-very-lucrative 1960s rock n roll oeuvre was getting very close to going public domain, so that anyone could exploit those recordings without getting a licence from or paying any money to the copyright owner (though the copyright in the song – which is linked to the life of the songwriter – would likely still be in play, so a licence would be required for that).

The UK government, initially hesitant to grant a longer sound recording term, changed its policy in 2009. However, copyright terms in the European Union are controlled by European law, so a few more years of lobbying were required to get the all-clear at the EU level. In the end the term extension – which wasn’t applied retrospectively – kicked in just in time to keep The Beatles catalogue in copyright in Europe. Except poor old ‘Love Me Do’ and its b-side.

Copyright term extensions are always controversial, with some arguing that 50 years is more than enough time for labels and performers to recoup any time or cash investment they made in creating a record. The record industry argues that – while everyone recouped on the hits long ago – the hits have to carry the vast majority of recordings that lose money, either because they are of niche interest, or in most cases because they never find an audience.

Also, wherever performers are due – under law – ‘equitable remuneration’ when their recordings are exploited in certain ways, there is an individual as well as corporate element to this debate. Because individual performers earn royalties even if they don’t own the copyright or have a label contract that guarantees a share of revenue

Political types are usually more easily persuaded by the thought of aging session musicians of limited means losing life-line royalty payments than by labels claiming they need more Beatles money to fund the next big thing’s new record (even though labels will earn way more during the extra 20 years).

Nevertheless, critics are already lining up in Canada to oppose copyright extension there (even though ministers are arguably compelled by global treaties to increase the sound recording term). In a statement, the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the announcement had come out of the blue, without a public consultation. And, indeed, during recent copyright reforms in the country it was decided not to extend the recording term.

The group writes: “Canada just completed a copyright reform process between 2010 and 2012, and it was decided not to extend copyright. Indeed, the idea received relatively little attention. There was no evidence, then or now, that the extension would increase incentives for the investment in the recording and performance of copyright works”.

It goes on: “On the contrary, as [law professor] Michael Geist explains, the significant costs of the new measure will be paid by the public, and the benefits will accrue mostly to record labels (and much less significantly to a few of the most successful recording artists). The sudden inclusion of such a measure in the federal budget therefore seems to come out of nowhere”.

But needless to say, reps for the Canadian music industry welcomed the announcement. Music Canada President Graham Henderson told reporters: “By proposing to extend the term of copyright in recorded music, Prime Minister Harper and the government of Canada have demonstrated a real understanding of music’s importance to the Canadian economy. Thank you. We look forward to seeing the full details when the Budget Implementation Act is tabled”.

Even Leonard Cohen was on hand to big up the proposals, saying: “In just a few short years, songs we recorded in the late 1960s will no longer have copyright protection in Canada. Many of us in our 70s and 80s depend on income from these songs for our livelihood. We would deeply appreciate any adjustment that would avert a financial disaster in our lives”.

News of impending term extension in Canada comes amidst much chatter online about the UK Green Party’s opinion on copyright terms. Everyone’s noticed that the Greens advocate shorter copyright terms for all, going as low as fourteen years. “Outrageous”, say creators and rights owners. “Good on em”, say the pro-copyright reformers. “Erm, you said what now?” say the lawyers.

Of course, while increased support for the Greens in the UK has added an interesting alternative voice in political debate, the party won’t wield any real power in the British Parliament for the foreseeable future, and certainly not on IP issues. And even if it did, as mentioned, copyright terms are controlled at the European level. But hey, at least it’s distracted everyone from all that increasingly tedious “did you hear Tidal’s bombed/doomed/fucked” chatter.