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Jean Michel Jarre poses the question “what about eternal copyright to support grassroots creators?”

By | Published on Thursday 23 April 2020

Jean Michel Jarre

There has been some interesting chatter among copyright geeks in recent days about a proposal made by Jean Michel Jarre during a UNESCO-organised online debate last week: the introduction of eternal copyright to generate a fund to support the creative community.

The debate was primarily focused on the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown on the creative and cultural communities, and how governments and the big content and tech companies could and should support individual creators. But the discussion also considered the wider challenges facing the creator community in the digital world, and measures that could be introduced beyond the COVID crisis to deal with those challenges.

Jarre is also President of CISAC, the global grouping of song right collecting societies, and in that role has been a prolific supporter and advocate of the music industry’s value gap campaign, which seeks to reform copyright law to end what the music community sees as the exploitative practices of the major tech firms.

Much of that campaign has been focused on the European Union in recent years, of course, and the reforms to the copyright safe harbour contained in last year’s European Copyright Directive. While it remains to be seen what impact those reforms actually have, the music industry would like to see similar measures implemented elsewhere.

Jarre used the UNESCO debate to talk more about the need for copyright reform around the world to deal with the specific challenges posed by the digital age and the domination on the internet of a small number of tech giants. But it was in the Q&A section that he made what was possibly his most radical proposal.

Currently copyright doesn’t last forever. The owners of any one copyright have control over their work, and can exploit that control for profit, for a set period of time. When that time period expires we say the work is ‘public domain’. No one controls it anymore, meaning any one else can make use of it without getting anyone’s permission, or paying any money.

How long copyright lasts for varies from country to country and depending on the kind of copyright. But in Europe sound recordings have protection for 70 years after release, while song copyrights run for the life of the creator and another 70 years.

But what, asked Jarre, if copyright was eternal? However, once the conventional copyright term was up, monies generated by the copyright work would go into a central fund to support the creative community around the world.

“The rights of movies, of music, of everything, would go to a global fund to help artists, and especially artists in emerging countries”, Jarre said. “This wouldn’t cost anything to anybody and could be done tomorrow”.

He then cited Beethoven’s ‘Ninth Symphony’. “This is in the public domain. It doesn’t get any rights. If the rights on the ‘Ninth Symphony’ were like a recent song, [it would generate income] and this money could go to help European artists, for example”.

It’s a simple idea in theory, as Jarre himself stressed, though obviously in practice it would throw up all sorts of complications, debates and arguments. How exactly would this fund work? Who would license the works from which the fund benefits? And does the idea of eternal copyright go against one of the fundamental principles of copyright itself?

Among those who have presented the counter arguments to Jarre’s eternal copyright idea is Miryam Boston, an IP specialist at London law firm Fieldfisher.

“The idea of ‘eternal copyright’ is an interesting concept”, she told CMU. “As a starting point the idea of a fund to assist struggling artists sounds commendable – the arts and culture are so important to our society and ensuring that artists can continue through this crisis is critical. However, it is difficult to see how in practice the mechanism of an ‘eternal copyright’ would work and it goes against many of the core ideas of copyright”.

Copyright law has to deal with the tricky task of balancing the interests of rightsholders and the interests of users, she says, and having copyright expire after a time period is part of that.

Many people – albeit not generally in the music community – “already consider the duration of copyright to be too long”, she went on, “so an extension of the duration could risk stifling creativity”. And if, as a compromise, Jarre’s fund proposal actually kicked in before the current copyright terms have expired, “this may well be difficult for authors to accept, particularly when they have lobbied for so many years for the period to be extended”.

Boston also stressed the complexities that would be involved in implementing this idea. “A key mechanism with copyright is the ability of authors to exploit their works for example by licensing others to carry out certain acts”, she observed. “It is unclear how this scheme would work in practice once works entered the ‘eternal’ phase – this would create a huge administrative burden of deciding when the work could be licensed, to whom, how much for and managing the payment of royalties”.

Of course, given Jarre’s proposal – while simple – is actually quite radical, such a measure isn’t going to introduced in the context of the COVID-19 shutdown. But it is, nevertheless, another interesting idea from someone who follows the ongoing debates around copyright very closely. And whichever side of the fence you sit on, it’s definitely interesting to discuss. Well, interesting for the world’s copyright geeks, anyway.

You can watch the full UNESCO debate – which covers much more ground than just this – at this link here. Jarre’s specific eternal copyright proposal was also posted by UNESCO onto Twitter, so you can see that here.