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Sound recording copyright extension could be passed imminently

By | Published on Thursday 8 September 2011

European Union

After many years of very vocal campaigning, the copyright term for sound recordings in Europe may be quietly increased to seventy years next week following a meeting this week of the European Union’s Committee Of Permanent Representatives.

As much previously reported, the sound recording copyright term is currently fifty years after release in Europe, compared to 95 years in the US, and the life of the creator plus seventy years for the rights that exist in lyrics and musical score.

The European record industry has been lobbying for some time for the sound recording copyright term to be extended, arguing the imbalance between European and US copyright terms, and between those enjoyed by music publishers and songwriters versus record companies and recording artists are unfair.

Those lobbying efforts became more prolific in recent years as the particularly valuable mid-sixties rock n roll catalogues – including the early Beatles and Rolling Stones recordings – started to approach the end of their fifty year terms. Labels like EMI still rely to an extent on royalties generated by music from that era, in EMI’s case the Beatles catalogue in particular.

Although the last government’s 2006 Gowers Report on copyright law did not back term extensions, Gordon Brown’s cabinet was subsequently persuaded of the need to extend the sound recording term, mainly based on the ‘aging session musicians’ argument.

Although session musicians are not usually due a cut of any royalties on record sales by contract, under UK copyright law they are due an albeit tiny cut of some other royalties, most notably those paid by broadcasters, and for certain session musicians who worked on certain hit records, that royalty, paid via collecting society PPL, amounts to something nearing a living wage. Campaigners argued that session musicians earning royalties off 1960s hits, most likely now in their 70s or 80s, would lose their income if copyright terms expired at fifty years.

However, while the UK government was now convinced (albeit to extend the term to 70 years, the record industry wanted 95), copyright terms are governed by the European Union, so the support of the British government simply meant the record companies and recording artists now had a friend in the EU debate.

But other lobbying efforts in Brussels meant that debate was already underway, with both the European Commission and European Parliament backing extension in 2009. Efforts faltered, though, at the final hurdle, with the third decision making body in the EU, the Council Of The European Union. Sometimes called the Council Of Ministers, this body includes representatives from each member state, and some of them did not support extension. With the 2009 European Elections looming, the debate ended unresolved.

Things then went a bit quiet, though lobbying continued behind the scenes in Brussels, and in April it was revealed the Hungarian presidency of the EU planned to put copyright terms back on the agenda for debate this year. There were also reports that Denmark, one of the EU members previously opposed to extension, would now vote in favour.

Which brings us to now. According to City AM, the Committee Of Permanent Representatives, preparing this week for a meeting of the Council Of Ministers next week, have put extending the copyright term back onto the agenda, and pro-extension types say they are confident the proposals now on the table will be rubber stamped by the Council next week.

Assuming so, all member states will then be obligated to write the extension into their own copyright laws. Which might mean the 1 Jan 2013 deadline, when The Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’ comes out of copyright under the current system, might just be met.

The specifics of the proposals being discussed and possibly passed next week will be interesting. Some argue that as part of any copyright term extension, more statutory rights should be given to artists over record labels (so both session musicians and featured artists) at the fifty year point, maybe including a statutory cut of other royalty revenues (so one paid oblivious of record contracts), more veto rights over how music is used, or, even, complete control for the artist. It remains to be seen if any of those ideas are part of the EU’s term extension proposals next week.