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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 April 2006, 13:05 GMT 14:05 UK
Q&A: Royalty rights for musicians
The Beatles
The Beatles' material is protected until 2013 under the current rule
Sir Cliff Richard is backing a campaign by the British music industry to extend the number of years that performers can claim royalties for their work.

What is the current situation?

Performers in the UK receive royalties from record sales and radio airplay for 50 years after a song is released. The person who composed that song, however, is entitled to the exclusive rights to their music and appropriate royalty payments for their entire life and a further 70 years after their death, a total of perhaps 120 years.

Why is there a call for this period to be extended?

Sir Cliff Richard has said that artists are just as important as composers because they are the people who bring the songs to life, and they are forever associated with each track. He began to enjoy chart success in the 1950s, which means that under the 50-year rule, he will soon cease to receive royalty payments on his earliest hits.

Sir Cliff argues that there are many musicians in a similar position, who rely on their copyright payments as a pension. Those performers whose careers lasted for only a few years in the 1950s - and whose contracts specified that they would continue to receive royalties long afterwards - will therefore stop collecting any income from their hits.

What happens at the end of the specified period?

A record company loses the exclusive rights to sell and distribute a recording. It is effectively available to anyone who wishes to set up a record label and reissue it. For example, the Beatles' first LP, Please Please Me, was released in 1963. Under the present 50-year rule, the album would cease to be covered in 2013, meaning that it could be re-released freely by any organisation.

EMI, which currently owns the rights to the group's extensive catalogue, would be powerless to stop this, and it would receive none of the royalties from any reissue. The artist loses the right to earn any further income, unless they wrote the song.

Sir Cliff Richard
Sir Cliff Richard is leading calls for a change in copyright laws
What do the record companies say?

The British Phonographic Industry, which represents record companies, says it is unfair to have different rules for performers and composers. It is demanding parity with the US system, where material is protected for 95 years after it is published.

It claims that new music will suffer if companies lose the exclusive rights to old recordings because the revenue from back catalogue material is reinvested by nurturing and promoting new groups and artists. The BPI says about 17% of turnover is reinvested in new music, a total of 200m in 2005. It is also keen to avoid the exploitation of musicians, who will have no say if other companies decide to reissue their prized hits.

Are there any perceived advantages to the present system?

Sometimes music will be "released" from record company vaults as a result of the rule, making it freely available for the first time in many years. There can also be opportunities for niche record companies specialising in the reissue of more obscure material that would perhaps not be considered as commercially viable by mainstream labels. Firms which remaster or restore classic music and artwork can also be commissioned as part of this process.

Don't artists make a lot of money from royalties already?

They could argue that large chunks of their royalties are swallowed up by "administrative" matters. Advance payments for albums must be returned. The costs of videos, promotional activities, touring and the hire of studios and musicians must be accommodated. Then the songwriters, producers and engineers need to be paid and CDs have to be pressed. When all of that is deducted, there is not as much income left for the artist.

Some performers will only have enjoyed a few hits in the 1950s, meaning that under the 50-year rule, they are about to lose all future revenue from those. However, it is clear that artists such as Sir Cliff, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie have had long, successful careers which continue to earn them large sums of money to this day, so it is unlikely they will ever have to worry about income drying up during their lifetimes.
Elvis Presley
The copyright on Elvis Presley's first hits expires this decade

What is the rule in other countries?

The US extended copyright protection for sound recordings from 50 to 95 years in 1998 following a similar battle, which was led by the late singer Sonny Bono. Australia and Brazil have 70-year terms, and it is 60 years in India. Copies of songs can be issued in Europe 50 years after their release, without the need for payments to copyright owners.

What happens next?

The Treasury has appointed Andrew Gowers, the former editor of the Financial Times newspaper, to conduct a review of copyright and intellectual property policies in Britain. He is requesting evidence to be submitted by interested parties before 21 April, and he will then publish recommendations to the government later this year. It can then choose to adopt his suggestions or dismiss them.

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