Business News Labels & Publishers Legal Top Stories

European Union extends sound recording copyright term

By | Published on Tuesday 13 September 2011

European Union

So, copyright extension. After years of campaigning, in the end it all happened rather fast, didn’t it? Though, I suppose, there is still the matter of this being incorporated into 27 separate copyright systems across the European Union, and presumably the UK industry will be on the phone to relevant British ministers already lobbying them to make sure it happens as quickly as possible over here (as we understand it, the extension won’t apply retrospectively to 51 year old recordings already out of copyright, so time is of the essence, another chunk of tunage will go into the public domain each January).

Anyway, yes, the European Union’s Council Of Ministers (or whatever it’s called these days) yesterday approved proposals to extend the copyright term for sound recordings from the current 50 up to 70 years. The last UK government originally threw its support behind such an extension back in 2009, and the basic proposals were backed by the European Commission and European Parliament the same year. However the Council – which includes reps from each EU member state – was not initially convinced, but yesterday it backed an EU directive extending the sound recording copyright term, which was hammered out by civil servants from each member state last week.

Various arguments were put forward by the record business for extending their copyrights. The disparity between the 50-years-from-release sound recording term and that enjoyed by songwriters, composers and their publishers (life plus 70 years). The disparity between the European and US term (where it’s 95 years). The extent to which record labels still rely on revenue from 1960s and 1970s hits to invest in new talent today. And the fact that some aging session musicians – earning via the automatic cut (oblivious of contract) they get of certain performance royalties, most lucratively broadcast royalties – relied on monies from 60s hits to survive.

It was the latter argument that convinced British ministers of the case for extension (the UK government’s Gowers Review of copyright having not supported it in 2006), hence why they backed the 70 year term (despite it being less than in the US) based on the idea that that would see out the life of any musician living off royalties from a track.

Of course, in reality it is record companies, which generally take the lion’s share of royalties from sound recordings, that will benefit the most from the term extension. EMI faced seeing the all important  Beatles catalogue start to come out of copyright in 2013 – and one can’t help thinking yesterday’s news could have a tangible impact on the price Citigroup gets for the major when it’s sold later this year.

But while most media coverage of the extension yesterday focused on the pop stars who stand to benefit, those who oppose the extension are more than aware that it is corporates who have the most to gain. They often argue that 50 years is more than enough time for a record company to recoup on its investment in an artist and album, though labels, of course, would point out that in a business where many more albums make losses than make a profit, the revenues from fifty year old hits are still needed to invest in new artists.

And there are some elements of the EU directive that will directly benefit performers. A ‘use it or lose it’ clause will obligate labels to ensure all 50 year old recordings are available somewhere for public purchase (so iTunes at least), otherwise the featured artist will be able to take control of tracks in the extended period. There will also be measures to ensure that both featured artists and session musicians benefit more in the final 20 years, oblivious of record contracts signed 50 years ago. Though few are likely to benefit as much as their former label partners.

Although term extension dominates in the new EU directive on copyright, there are some other matters hiding in there too, including a move to harmonise rules on publishing copyrights (so on lyrics and musical score) where songs are created by more than one person. These rights, of course, are linked to the death of the creator, and generally where there are multiple creators the 70 years start counting down when the last creator dies. However, where one creator wrote the lyrics and the other the score there was some variation across Europe as to when the countdown began, with some copyright systems treating lyrics and score separately, so that the lyrics could go out of copyright before the score if the lyricist died first.

But under the new directive all EU copyright systems will apply the same rule, so that lyrics and score will be linked, and the lyrical copyright will expire at the same time as score copyright even if the lyricist dies first, or vice versa. And if that doesn’t make perfect sense, then you should probably all come the CMU copyright training course, where everything will be explained in depth, and in very user-friendly terms. Hurrah.

About 4009 music industry reps lined up yesterday to support the extension (read some of the quotes here), generally drowning out comments from those who oppose the move. Though, you could argue that the same applies to term extension as the Digital Economy Act, on which IP lawyer Paul Carlyle recently remarked at Edinburgh’s Festival Of Politics, that while there are good arguments in favour of the measures, and those arguments are generally accepted by rights-owners and politicians, the music industry has not really won the public debate on this issue.