Friday, April 24, 2009

EU parliament extends copyright term

The EU parliament caved in to vested interests yesterday by voting to extend the term of copyright in sound recordings by 20 years.
"Charlie McCreevy, the EU’s Internal Market Commissioner, who proposed the copyright changes, said: “Some might argue that European creators are overprotected. Those who rely on copyright for their income would beg to differ. If artists stay in the music recording business because it pays to do so, consumers would enjoy more variety as a consequence.

“Europe’s performers often live a very precarious existence at the best of times. This proposal ensures that performers can, in their late life, recoup a share in the income they generate.”"

The Commission is very pleased even though, by the EU's own figures, more than four fifths of the revenues flowing from this decision will go directly to the music labels and the top earning artists like the smiling Cliff Richard in the Times report on the vote. And anyone with the faintest mathematical literacy and a basic understanding of compound interest and discounted cash flows can demonstrate that it will not increase the incentive to create new works. Mr McCreevy is a chartered accountant and former Irish finance minister of seven years standing. With a background that suggests he should understand the figures he is really difficult not to believe he is being more than a little disingenuous in his comments.

Maybe someone could get through to him and the Commission by telling them the story of the birthday song? In 1893 the Hill sisters published the music and lyrics of a song called "Good Morning to All" in their book of songs for younger kids (I vaguely recall it had an original enlightening title along the lines 'Songs for the kindergarten' but just to be sure, check out Kimbrew McLeod's terrific book, Freedom of Expression, for a more detailed account of the story and the precise title of the sisters' Hill book). The tune had been around for years and had been sung with a variety of lyrics like "good night to you all" and "happy New Year to all" etc. The little kids liked the song so much they started singing it at birthday parties and spontaneously made up the words "Happy Birthday to You...".

The Hill sisters didn't get round to registering the copyright (a requirement in the US in those days) in "Happy Birthday to You" - neither the tune nor the words of which were created by them remember - until 1935. But so began the successful commercial life of "Happy Birthday to You" the royalties and lawsuits on which have been flowing ever since.

TimeWarner (or technically speaking its predecessor company Warner Communications) acquired the rights to the song in the late 1980s and were quite pleased when the US Congress extended the term of copyright by 20 years a decade later. This means that, in the US, the birthday song can continue to contribute more than $1 million per annum to TimeWarner's bottom line until 2030, by which time the Cliff Richards of the world will have been wheeled out to the media studios again with the sad tales of impoverished pensioner musicians who desperately need the copyright term to be extended. And despite economic evidence indicating those same poor musicians will benefit only to the tune of €0.5 to €30 per year at best, the politicians will drool over the photo-opportunity with the celebrity du jour and roll out the extension carpet again. There is a lot of the Groundhog Day surreality about the copyright term policy story but maybe by the time of the next extension I might not even be able to mention said film in such a context. I'm really going to have to wean myself off the elixir of copyright. I'm not sure how much longer I can stand seeing the story repeat itself.

It is a sad indictment of the EU Commission and 371 EU parliamentarians (and 37 abstainers) that they have bought into the fantasy of term extension spun so successfully by the entertainment industry's pr machines. It's a big win for the wealthiest artists and the labels and a big loss for the other interested parties - the majority of musicians, new creators and the public.

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