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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 August, 2004, 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK
Head to head: Music copyright
With the first wave of rock 'n' roll recordings - starting with Elvis Presley - about to go out of copyright in Europe, the UK music industry wants the current 50-year time limit extended. But would this also be good news for fans? Both sides of the argument are put forward below.

Peter Jamieson, chairman - British Phonographic Industry
The UK record industry, the third largest in the world, succeeds or fails on its ability to invest in new talent and then recoup that investment by selling sound recordings.

European sound recordings are currently only protected by copyright for 50 years. By contrast the work of authors, songwriters and composers - the song rather than the recording - is protected for 70 years after their death, a total perhaps of 120 or 130 years.

To make things more complicated, recording copyrights also differ around the world. For example, 70 years in Brazil and (soon) Australia, and 95 years in the US.

As of 1 January 2005, recordings made on or before December 31 1954 will no longer be protected by UK copyright law. Record companies, artists and performers whose work falls into the public domain will no longer have the right to earn income from their work.

The British record industry - which invests more in new British musical talent than any other - has less time to earn from its work than other UK creative industries - recording copyright suffers from unfair discrimination at the hands of copyright law.

World beater

The UK record industry has a rich heritage. With UK artists such as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones gaining international acclaim in the 1960s, the UK record industry established itself as a world beater and has been there ever since.

Artists like Razorlight, Keane and Franz Ferdinand to name but a few are now breaking through because UK record companies have signed them, invested in them and promoted them. This is only possible because the UK record industry is able to re-invest the proceeds from sales in new artists.

In today's marketplace, as returns on recorded music sales become ever smaller, it becomes ever more crucial that the recorded music industry can recoup its investment in new music. In order to do so, it needs the confidence of having a term of copyright at least equal comparable with that of its major competitors.

Some suggest dismissively that this is about the right of already established and successful artists like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones being able to continue to earn royalties on their work. It is not. Just as is the case with music piracy, it is not the established artists who suffer the most when copyright is weak or abused. It's about the new generation of artists.

The UK record industry invests about 13% of its revenues in developing new artists. A weaker UK record industry means less investment in new British artists, and for that investment to continue, an extension of the term of copyright is essential.

Louis Barfe, author - Where Have All the Good Times Gone? The Rise and Fall of the Record Industry
The record industry is fond of referring to its "intellectual property", but I'm not sure there are too many intellectuals at work in the business.

As for their property, certain staples have been in print from the day they were released, but many deleted gems are locked in archives, unheard and quite possibly deteriorating, while original vinyl copies change hands for obscene money.

Their entire archives could and should be digitised and sold as downloads. Unfortunately, that's unlikely as it involves vision and effort. In the meantime, niche labels have sprung up specialising in reissuing out-of-copyright recordings, providing the majors with healthy competition.

When UK copyright law was last amended in the mid-1990s, the copyright in records was left as it was. Why the sudden interest in changing the law?

If it isn't amended pretty soon, the earliest Elvis Presley sessions will be out of copyright, and by 2013, the Beatles' first LP will have gone the same way. This is potentially disastrous for the record companies, which continue to milk these aging cash cows.

The Beatles back catalogue on EMI currently represents appalling value for money - each full-price CD contains one LP where two would fit. It wouldn't be hard for a specialist reissue label to offer a better product if it was free to do so. To extend the copyright period is to allow the major record companies to carry on stiffing the consumer.


The BPI has suggested that the artists "will suffer loss of income... if nothing is done". Actually, record companies are the usual cause of income loss among artists, so the existing law could be very beneficial to the talent - giving them the chance to reclaim and reissue their back catalogues as they wish.

Artists do not receive royalties on out-of-copyright releases - but released on the artist's own label, the profits received are likely to be far greater than the royalty cut offered by even the most generous record contract. Also, the real money in music comes from songwriting, and even on CDs of non-copyright recordings, the composers have to be paid.

To extend the copyright in sound recordings past the current 50-year period would be to grant major record companies a licence to carry on doing nothing, at the same time putting smaller labels out of business and reducing the amount of choice available to music lovers.

Every time the majors want to move the goalposts, it seems they get their own way. Would that the consumers and the artists had the same luxury.

BBC News Online sent in their comments on the arguments.

Perhaps the reason for the complaints from the record industry appearing now is due in no small part to the change in nature of the public domain. With the advent of peer to peer networks, IP in the public domain actually is available to the public in a way never before seen.
Richard, Manchester

The bit about intellectual property was a gag, albeit one based in truth. As for spitting out "tired old clichés", was everything in Peter Jamieson's contribution newly-minted and fresh as a daisy? I don't think so. I've heard the BPI's "tired old clichés" so many times before that I could probably have written his side of the argument as well. As a freelance writer, I'm absolutely of the belief that the creators of a piece of work should be paid fairly for it, and be able to exploit it to the full. However, throughout the history of a record industry there has been an absolute imbalance of bargaining power, and the artists have been the exploited rather than the exploiters. Extending the copyright period perpetuates that imbalance. In publishing, the rights in a book revert to the author if it goes out of print, and a similar idea, if applied to music, would be fairer to the talent. If the record companies wanted this extension, they should have argued for it when copyright laws were last revised in the early 1990s. No-one seemed to care or realise then, when the hippest and most happening thing to go out of copyright was Glenn Miller. To do so now stinks of short-termism and panic.
Louis Barfe, Lowestoft, Suffolk

With the extra money the record companies can get from selling downloads at prices higher than CDs (music which saves money on production and distribution and given to listeners at an inferior sound quality) I'm sure they'll find they're making enough money to invest in their newer artists (many of who are just rip-offs of the older ones)
Sam, Manchester, England

Most people have a working life of 40-50 years. Having your income from an early work protected long enough to last at least until "retirement" is ample. Or should Michelangelo's estate still be paid royalties from people who see or use his work? Rather than extending the copyright in recordings, copyright for authors, songwriters, etc., should be reduced at least to 50 years from the current "total perhaps of 120 or 130 years". I believe it would greatly enrich our culture if all copyright were to be reduced further to 25 years, similar to patents - this would help more people to sample a greater variety of artistic material and stimulate further creation (which the record companies can then profit from, for 25 years).
S Jones, Newbury, UK

Why are record companies always complaining? Not too long ago when a new song was released you had to buy at least 5 copies in different formats just for the "exclusive" b-side. So you got an exclusive song on the b-side of the single, another exclusive song on the cassette version, a third exclusive song on the maxi-single, a fourth exclusive song on the CD-single and a fifth exclusive song on the maxi-CD-single. And do not forget if you wanted the dub-mix, extended-mix and Joe-the-DJ-mix you had to buy further releases. On the album front it is even worse: one previously unreleased song on a re-released album! In the meantime hundreds, if not thousands, great unreleased songs are rotting in the vaults because the record companies do not think they can make huge profits on releasing this. They rather stick to major artists and TV-hyped singers and groups.
Luuk Bonthond, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

The music industry's attempt to extend private ownership into what are long-established common property rights is part of a wider phenomenon of corporations encroaching on the public domain - including attempts to patent genetic material and crops which are the end-product of thousands of years of human effort. Governments, particularly our own, have proven far too receptive to this attempt to expropriate common property resources. What is currently lacking, and sorely needed, is strong representation for the consumer interest.
Peter Scott, Reading, England

Fifty years of protection has been enough to allow the UK record distribution industry to continue to invest so far. Copyright was never intended to last for ever - they have had 50 years to get used to the idea. Isn't it time to promote new work, and make 50 years of profit from that?

If they get an extension now, won't we hear exactly the same whinging again when the even longer period runs out?
Paul Dundas, Belfast, NI

Why don't the record companies move with the times? Let the music go for free, follow George Michael's example and say enough money is enough. They made this business a cutthroat one but I bet they didn't figure on the throat being theirs one day.
Jay, Dorset

With less revenue the industry will have less money to invest in new talent... boo hoo! The record companies don't invest in new acts for the public good, they do so to sign new talent to make more money.

I don't begrudge record labels making money (it's nice work if you can get it), though perhaps I begrudge them making so much by overpricing CDs, just don't expect sympathy from the consumer. You've had 50 years to make money out of your recordings, you've made millions, now they should be released into the public domain.
Richard, Manchester

The pharmaceuticals industry can only protect their intellectual property (IP) for a period of around 15 years. Their initial outlay is greater and the benefit for mankind is arguably more important.

When a drug is no longer protected more people can benefit from its effects. The company who developed it will generally have made enough profit from their limited monopoly to finance the discovery of future drugs. Indeed, the loss of exclusivity makes finding new profit sources essential! If patents lasted as long as copyright I can imagine a large drug company sitting on its collection of "popular" drugs and feeling no need to innovate.
Ian Clark, Cambridge, UK

It shows a remarkable lack of foresight and planning if the record industry has made insufficient profits from their product after 50 years. If their business model does not take into account the limitations imposed by current legislation, they are incompetent.
Martin, Loughborough

What incentive will Elvis and Lennon have to produce more records unless copyright terms are extended? (But seriously ...) Copyright terms when they wrote those records were 28 years. They were extended retrospectively, and the result has been a great loss for the public domain.
Richard Jones, London, UK

Fifty years is more than plenty of time for the record industry to recoup their investment. Any more time would simply be greedy and a heavy-handed way to stifle fair competition.
Amanda, London, UK

Firstly as a design engineer (electronics) I object to copyright lasting so long, when the patents I authored only last 20 years. An artist get protection beyond his death for his intellectual property! Secondly, as a collector of the works of Duke Ellington, I object to large corporations having control over his recordings and compositions 30 years since his death in 1974. His grandson, Paul, certainly is no chip off the old block in talent. Neither he nor the industry should profit further from Ellington's works. Why should they have such a long, protected income from a dead person's endeavours?
Michael Kilpatrick, Cambridge UK

"Copyright extension" - just another way to subsidise the excessive lifestyles of record company executives and megalomaniacs. This is just another attempt to inject life into an industry that needs radical reform. They cannot be allowed to move the goalposts yet again. It was wrong for the copyright limitations on other existing works to be extended, it is wrong to consider it for recordings, If copyright is to be extended, it should not be retrospective. This goes foe ALL media!
Roger, Liverpool, UK

So, the argument is that because the huge record companies have managed to get restrictive laws on copyright passed in other countries, Britain should automatically follow suit? What a ridiculous notion! Copyright was intended as a way to encourage individuals to innovate, by guaranteeing them the ability to profit from their invention for a limited time - thus making our culture richer. It is NOT simply a way of making corporations richer - although they're spending a lot of their money trying to convince us that it is.
Al, London, UK

I've no sympathy with record companies. This has been an issue for years and they've done nothing about it. Only now when they realise that they're profits will be wiped out do they actually do anything.
Neil Greggor, High Wycombe

For record companies to claim they invest in new talent is laughable - the majority of signed bands are placed under salary agreements where the group members remain eligible for state benefits. If anything, the state is making the more substantial contribution to the investment in the talent. Record companies only pay advances - it is the artist who has to pay this back, yet this does not entitle them to take ownership of the recordings. Sounds recordings going back into the public domain after 50 years sounds pretty just in this context.
Mark, London, UK

This is just an excuse for greedy record companies to make more money with little effort. Older artists are becoming more self-sufficient and should be allowed to sell their own products through either smaller internet labels or private sale. As John Martyn once said... "I often thought of faking my own death and watching the record companies drum up all the s**t they can".
Neil Warden, Edinburgh, Scotland

Copyright is a two sided deal. An artist is granted a monopoly on the distribution of a work for a limited time, and in return the work becomes the property of the public after that time. Why are the ever more greedy industry cartels finding it so hard to keep up their side of the bargain? The original argument for the need of copyright in the first place was that without it artists would have no incentive to produce because they could not profit from their work. Does anyone really believe that a fifty year monopoly is not enough? You have had your 50 years. Now it is time to give back.
Martin, UK

The current copyright laws benefit the record companies far more than the actual artists. Furthermore, how long should individuals and companies expect to receive payment for what amounts to simply a few hours of work? Fifty years is quite sufficient to receive payment for one off work. However, I suspect we'll be passing "Mickey Mouse" laws just as in America to protect the "intellectual property" of these big companies.

There's no such thing as "intellectual property" anyway since only copyrights, patents and trademarks are recognised in law.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

Perhaps the main reason that record companies want to extend the copyright period on old recordings is because they are largely incompetent at releasing new music with any sort of longevity. I really cant see the current crop of top 10 artists providing much of a retirement for anyone.
Martin, London UK

The only reason the music industry wants to extend the time copyright can subsist in a sound recording is sheer greed. It was increased to 100 years they would then want another 50 and so to perpetuate the monopoly. Fifty years is adequate, these works should now be part of the public domain.
Anthony N Jarvis, Wirral UK

I can see no reason whatsoever why recordings which have been "deleted" (made unavailable at some point since the original release) should be protected by copyright. The withdrawal of the official sales channel by the recording company surely signals that they no longer have an interest in the recording. If the record company later wants to re-release (perhaps on a new recording medium), that's just too bad - they simply shouldn't be allowed to milk the market in that way.

Having said that I'm quite happy for penalties against commercial piracy to be strengthened and enforced.
Brian Beesley, UK

"Able to reinvest the proceeds from sales in new artists." Hmm... What huge income from back catalogue was required for the Beatles or Rolling Stones to become massive? Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley won't benefit from extended copyright. It appears that income from real artists is needed to fund attempts to manufacture bands that either (a) go nowhere or (b) fall apart after a few releases.
Darren Jones, Hyde, Cheshire

This debate is bound to end up being one about music piracy and copying. Record companies will struggle for as long as the try to put limits on peoples abilities to enjoy music. Example - I tried to buy a download of an out of print album from one of the major online suppliers - it was available from their US site, but I could not get it on the UK version of the site I am forced to use, even though its a British band! Oh, and if it had been available it would have been 30% more expensive for exactly the same product. I am trying to get it legitimately, I am even prepared to pay more to get it, but I can't. My only options - pay through the nose for a used CD on eBay or download it for nothing from one of the many peer to peer sites out there.
Jack, York

First up, how many artists are still around to pick up their royalty cheques from fifty-year-old recordings? Elvis certainly isn't, and nor are his band. So why should the recordings stay in copyright just so record executives can make money from something they played no part in creating? More seriously, this isn't some bizarre archaic anomaly, or a completely unforeseen loophole - it's precisely how the law on copyright is designed to work. The artists' rights are protected for a set period and in return the law sets down that after this period, the protected work shall enter the public domain. That's the bargain, and there's something a bit worrying about the fact that the music industry as a whole seems to feel it can at the same time aggressively pursue its rights under the first part of the deal, but then renege on the second part.
Joe, London, England

The contracts which bands signed with their record labels surely were based on the fact that the recording copyright would only belong to the record company for fifty years. If the law were to be changed wouldn't it be fair for all the contracts to be renegotiated? Bands sometimes have the release of their recordings suppressed by the record labels because of disputes or even because the label doesn't want competition for other bands which it is trying to promote. The only way that bands in that situation can make any money from their songwriting is by releasing the albums themselves once the recording copyright has expired.
Jon Ward, London, UK

I see the British publishing industry has no problem with so many literary classics out of copyright and available to buy for £1, something that actually encourages people to read great works. Perhaps the record industry should find more talented new people as the book industry has instead of relying on the dead. Given Elvis and most of his contemporaries are dead its ludicrous to suggest the artist will stop benefiting and lose millions.
James Newman, UK

When Louis Barfe spits out the same tired old clichés such as "the real money in music comes from songwriting" (actually songwriters receive 8.5% of Published Price to Dealer - or trade price to Joe public), and "Actually, record companies are the usual cause of income loss among artists" we just see a demonstration of the normal record company bashing that's so popular amongst journalists, copyright thieves and lower end artists that can't make a living from music because they don't make music that people want to listen to.

No, don't get me wrong, record companies have many ills, failure to progress in the digital age, dodgy royalty payment policies and the inability to stand up to retail being among the many, but they do at least deserve the chance to recoup and profit from their investments well beyond the 50 years they're presently allowed.
Mat Morrisroe, UK

Every time copyright is extended we (society) lose out. The only winners are corporations who continue to benefit long after the authors of the work are dead. As an author I'd be quite happy to see the copyright period reduced to more meaningful periods, i.e. 25 years after death of the author. In my opinion that is ample time and allows one generation of the authors family to benefit from work they themselves did not produce. Look up the Sonny Bono Extension Act to see just how much our rights are being trampled on by corporate copyright extension.
Cameron, Cambridge

Louis Barfe's comment that "The record industry is fond of referring to its "intellectual property", but I'm not sure there are too many intellectuals at work in the business." is either intentionally disingenuous or painfully naive; the securing and exploiting of intellectual property is fast becoming the single most important strategic lever in the commercial world, but despite the semantic muddying of the waters deployed by Louise Barfe has little if anything to do with the notion of being an intellectual.
Lawrence Toms, London, UK

Barfe may be right that major labels are largely at fault for the problems of the industry, but what makes him think that artists are equipped to set up their own labels and compete with the well-run indies who thrive on out-of-copyright recordings? Atlantic Records led the way in ensuring that R&B artists got a fair "modern" royalty rate on '40s and '50s masters. Would the reissue labels do the same? No way. The only way to protect artists (and producers!) rights is to extend copyright on recordings. A law allowing the copyright extension but giving rights back to artists might be nice, but very complicated. What about groups who no longer speak to each other?
Joe Boyd, London

The only concern of the BPI here is that the music industry over here will find themselves unable to milk old music for all its worth. It's disgusting that the music industry delights in trying to force some "Flop Idol" or other derivative, manufactured rubbish down our throat and then has the audacity to then say that you have to pay £16 for the Rolling Stones or Beatles albums. Let's be honest here - how many truly great groups have turned up as a result of the music industry's investment in recent years?

A re-investment of only 13% seems to indicate what most people have suspected for years. Record companies are not interested in the music, the artist or the consumer - only their wallets.
Paul Peacock, London, England

While there is no doubt that artists and publishers need to earn an income from their work, I think the whole system of marketing music needs to be changed. The technology for digitising and exchanging music over the Internet has truly changed the industry and this development cannot be stopped by whatever number of court cases. Why not follow the example of the film industry: By the time a movie is freely available for recording on television, it has made most if its income already and the copyright owners don't need to be worried too much. Similarly, before a song is played on the radio and sold in shops, it could earn its money making the club round.
Holger, UK

The UK record industry invests it's money in un-original bubblegum pop music that has been heard 1000's of times before. To read this article and hear Mr Jamieson harping on about how they've made a fortune out of music from the last 50 years and that this simply isn't good enough, smacks of disbelief. If the record industry needs artists and material that are over 50 years old to survive then clearly there is something wrong with their modern day operations.
Jon, UK

I have very little sympathy for the BPI and major record companies - this concern about loss of revenue smacks of sheer greed. 99% of the best, most innovative and most interesting new music is created by artists on small independent labels or who've set up their own record company anyway. If the major record companies having less income means we get less of the likes of the dreadful Keane and Razorlight foisted upon us then I'm all for it.
Nick, Derby, UK

Two points emerge - first point is that, yes there ought to be international agreement on the issue. Never more so than now, the distribution of recorded music is an international issue and needs to be dealt with as such. However, the other side of the coin is this. Peter Jamieson talks about needing to recoup the investment on recorded music. While there's nothing wrong with this, I can't think of any other industry which bemoans the fact that 50 years is too short a period. What is revealed is the paucity of truly great talent over the last 50 years that leaves the recording industry apparently reliant on a few admittedly great artists of the 50s and 60s.

Is Peter Jamieson really saying that the earning power of Presley, the Beatles and the Stones is so great that the industry will fall apart without it? Is he really saying that there are no artists from following decades and now that can match that earning power? What a sorry state of affairs!
Stuart Dollin, Halifax UK

Copyright in sound recordings should reside with the artist (or nominated others of their choosing - i.e. session musicians, producers, etc) for the duration of the named artist's lifetime. There is no need for copyright to be extended beyond that as this only benefits the businesses who are already either being paid up front or reaping rewards from sales margins or children/dependents whose welfare should be catered for by investing the money earned during the artist's life time.
Christopher Barbour, Edinburgh, Scotland

Is this the same recording industry that is sitting on two All About Eve albums and refusing to re-release them? The band don't even own their own recordings and therefore can do nothing about it. And we're meant to believe they act in the best interests of "artistes"? Pull the other one! The copyright argument is a red herring put around by the industry to justify their profiteering. Why don't journalists ever ask exactly how much of a £14.99 CD goes towards the copyright fee?
Warren Swaine, Reading, UK

If McFly and Busted are the new generation of talent the record industry want us to swallow, I'd be happy for them to go to the wall so I can enjoy better quality release by the Beatles and the Stones.
Donald Smithwick, London, England

Louis Barfe is right in nailing the myth that lengthening the recording copyright term has anything to do with rewarding or protecting artists. Firstly the current 50-year term serves only a tiny handful of recorded artists; the vast majority see their songs and albums languish in record company vaults and would be better served with those records coming into the public domain where either specialist labels or the artists themselves could release and exploit them. Secondly the idea that the UK music business suffers from a shorter term than many of its competitors is hard to take seriously. Are we to believe that either UK artists choose to sign to foreign labels due to longer terms, or that the greater bulk of any monies made by artists for their labels is not made in the first 5 or 10 years of a 50 year term?

There is a whole separate, but related, argument about why the major labels have such low success strikes rates, display such limited patience with new acts, and continue to operate with such extraordinary high costs (both in terms of salaries and marketing/promotion costs) but suffice to say that 'unfairly' short recording copyright terms are not the major labels biggest challenge.
K F Dawson, Coventry, England

Interesting to see Mr Jamieson of the BPI claiming the credit for breaking Franz Ferdinand et al on to the market. I was under the impression they were on an independent label which possibly has an affiliation to the BPI through AIM, so surely this is tenuous to say the least. I recently read with interest an article from Alex in the band that part of their new found success was due to building up a fan base who downloaded their music illegally. He appeared to support this wholeheartedly, much to the chagrin of the BPI I'm sure. Please don't give us this drivel about looking after artist rights - you've been ripping off the artists since the first records were made, The Beatles and Stones included.

I don't see why British recording companies should be at a disadvantage compared to American, German or Japanese. Surely trying to equalise the term of copyright between the majors (this seems to be what it boils down to) makes sense, to give EMI the same playing field as Sony, Universal etc - as we all want British music to succeed internationally. The state of the record industry between major and independent labels is a separate issue which should not be confused with the copyright on recordings issue, although I agree that we could do with some other major competition in the UK record industry
Phil Hunt, Gamlingay, Cambs

It's tragic to think that, less than ten years from now, the Rolling Stones and the surviving Beatles will cease to earn UK royalties from their early recordings. How will Mick Jagger and Sir Keith Richards survive without the proceeds from The Last Time and As Tears Go By? How will Paul McCartney ever be able to show his face in public again, without the UK royalties from Please Please Me and From Me To You? The copyright law should be extended to 100 years, so that Keith Richards can live out his remaining decades without worrying about how to keep the wolf from the door.
Kevin Connolly, Belfast, N Ireland

Am I missing something here? The copyright subsisting in the sound recording may expire at the end of this year, but the literary copyright subsisting in the song lyrics and the copyright subsisting in the music will both continue to exist for at least another twenty years. As it is likely that all of these copyrights will be owned by the same party (usually the record company by assignment), then surely that party will still be able to prevent unauthorised dealing of the work by virtue of the remaining copyrights? The only recordings which will be seriously affected will be recordings of bird songs / incidental noise etc, where there are no other copyrights apart from the sound recording right.
Pete, UK

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