Copyright extension

A couple of years ago, Andrew Gowers wrote a report for Gordon Brown, looking at whether copyright needed to be extended from 50 to 70 years, bringing the UK in line with the US, or to 95 years, which has been recommended by an EU commissioner. Gowers concluded it should not.

The culture secretary, Andy Burnham, is apparently wavering and has claimed that there is a ‘moral case’ for increasing the figure to 70 years.

The man is an idiot. In what sense can there be a ‘moral case’ for 70 years rather than 50? If it’s more moral to go for more, why not 95? Or 1000 years? He is perhaps influenced by Cliff Richard’s absurd complaint that his early works about to go out of copyright: if Sir Cliff hasn’t been putting money aside for 50 years of healthy royalties, then that’s his own problem. He will have made millions and millions in his lifetime. Of course, some artists did not have huge successes like Sir Cliff, but their royalties will be peanuts and a copyright extension is hardly likely to keep them in custard in their retirement.

We’re talking about music, of course, because there’s no real pressure from literary writers for such an extension. In fact, it seems to be common sense that copyright probably inhibits your earnings. Imagine your first novel goes out of print; twenty years later (you’re now 45) an enterprising young publisher finds a second-hand copy and loves it; maybe they could do a reprint? No chance, says the finance department, it’s still in copyright, we’ll never sell enough copies of a twenty-year-old book to make any kind of return. And the chance for a literary rehabilitation passes by.

Burnham’s wobble is undoubtedly under pressure from the record labels. The key date is 2013, when the first official Beatles recordings fall out of copyright and EMI’s cash cow dries up. Some of Elvis’s recordings are already technically copyright-free in the UK and the next fifteen years will see the entire heritage of sixties music come into public domain.

(I say ‘technically’ copyright free, because any remastering, digitizing, cleaning-up and so on is itself copyrightable so Elvis’s Sun Recordings from 1954 and 1955 are copyright free, if you happen to have a set of the original records, which very few people do. EMI are trying to see to it that The Beatles stay in copyright by re-releasing the entire back catalogue in super-remastered editions over the next couple of years. About time too: those recordings have been scandalously neglected by a company who have done little service to them for fifty years, first milking them in often inferior compilations (The Beatles at the Movies anyone?), and then throwing them onto CDs and letting all the remastering technology pass them by for two decades. One might reasonably ask why EMI seems suddenly so concerned with its musical heritage as to demand that copyright extensions for another 20 years when it so shabbily treated that same heritage for the previous half-century.)

The record companies are, of course, in crisis. Good thing too, they have underestimated us and milked us and patronised us for ages, making enormous profits for themselves and a few pampered darlings, and left the indies and latterly the self-publishers to produce most things of real interest. As usual, they are looking back, scrabbling to preserve their profits, rather than try to embrace the new digital culture.

It’s clear that the nature of music acquisition has changed. People download music, sometimes by paying for it, sometimes for free. The album as a continuous and coherent work is now a marginal thing; the physical single is bought by very few people (Alex from X Factor’s awful awful version of Leonard Cohen’s sublime ‘Hallelujah’ has sold 80,000 in downloads in around 36 hours; current estimates are that physical single sales are rarely above 200,000 in total each week); and many of us just don’t think of music as something you save up for and pore over – it’s much more free-floating and disposable and part of a broader music pointillisme than it ever was before. There is so much for the music industry to embrace about this; they need to be releasing music for free, embracing new ways of directing our attention to new music, using the resources of Web 2.0 to give us new kinds of access to music. (A friend recently emailed me some of the separate 4-track recordings that made up Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; maybe that’s for nerds only, but it was fascinating to see how the Beatles built up some of their most celebrated songs, and to have to tools to remix what they did in new ways. And I’m 40 – think what someone who actually knows how to do this stuff could do…)

Intellectual property is a dubious area. It’s important that you get credit for what you do – and that you’re responsible for it too. It’s important that people have some way of making a living if they do it well. At the moment, writers are somewhat protected from this area, because the e-book has not yet really caught on (though I’ve seen a couple of people with Sony Readers on the tube. I played with one in Waterstones on Gower Street but it feels too chunky and the interface is still pretty rudimentary. The Amazon Kindle had better functionality but it’s one of the ugliest damn things I’ve ever seen. Inevitably, I’m waiting for Apple to come out with a wholly touch-screen interactive device to transform the way we interact with books, the way they did with music and phones). But when that day comes, writing will also be impossible to control by copyright legislation and we had better get used to that. 

For most writers, the disappearance of copyright will mean not a jot of difference. Very few people make money from their writing. I certainly wouldn’t like to try to live off the income from my publications (which is essentially what we’re talking about), though the money from commissions and the royalties from productions are more substantial. Those are not likely to be very affected by a collapse in the copyright on publication. I doubt that the novel will be hugely affected by digital downloading – surely the relationship between the story and the physical aspect of holding a book, turning the pages, folding down the corners, flicking back, seeing it on your shelf, is much greater than it has been between the sheeny anonymity of the CD and the music it holds.

I suspect that where the big changes will happen is in academic publishing, where we may well see the disappearance of the large academic presses in our lifetimes – well, certainly yours. Universities will set up their own free e-presses, and we will all become vanity publishers. The internet has made vanity publishing respectable again. 

It’s pathetic to see Andy Burnham trying to hold back a change that he – and the record companies – must see cannot be averted, even by the RIAA’s absurd and costly attempts to frighten teenagers and pensioners by claiming exemplary damages for alleged illegal downloading. Copyright is not a moral right except in a limited sense that is nothing to do with 50 or 70 or 95 years and it’s shameful to see a Labour secretary of state cowtowing to Big Music in this way.

Okay, rant over. Merry Christmas slash Hannukah slash winterval slash solstice slash hogmanay slash whateveryouwanttocelebrate.

Dan

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