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Last Updated: Friday, 17 February 2006, 14:58 GMT
Copyright sings to a different tune
Keeping time limits on copyright could open the way for a new wave of creativity, argues Kay Withers of the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank.

KT Tunstall
KT Tunstall picked up a gong at the Brits
Musicians have had a busy couple of weeks, moving from one major music ceremony to another in the hope of picking up an award.

From UK artists such as Franz Ferdinand and Coldplay rapidly gaining international recognition, to the Arctic Monkeys record-breaking album sales, the strength and vibrancy of new talent emerging in the UK means this year's round of award ceremonies should be a time of celebration for artists, the listening public and the music industry alike.

But the message from the industry is one of impending gloom. They are warning that they face one of the biggest challenges to their survival since popular music exploded in the 1960s.

In 2013, copyright in the sound recording of the Beatles' first album expires, as it will for recordings from Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and other performers of the same period.

Of course, copyright of all works expires at some point. This is for a clear reason. Copyright is designed to provide reward and incentive for creators and innovators. It also recognises that innovators and creators build on works from the past, and that they need to access these works if art, culture and science are to flourish.

Who loses out?

In the midst of an explosion in digital music sales, and a flourishing new music scene, industry executives are lobbying the UK government to extend protection for sound recordings from 50 years to 95.

Creativity in music, film and literature is a cyclical process. New artists borrow from the past to create works to be valued in the future
This, they say, would protect existing revenue streams that bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones provide.

The argument for the extension of copyright is often presented as win-win situation for all. If we do not extend copyright, then the Beatles' sound recordings could be packaged and released by anybody, and the recording artists would not receive any money from future sales of the songs they recorded and made popular.

So it hurts the recording artists, the record company who owned the original copyright, and the consumers who will be faced with a deluge of low quality Beatles compilations.

But it is not actually the case that the artist will necessarily lose out. While copyright in the sound recording itself may be due to expire, copyright in the original work belonging to the songwriter lasts for the length of their lives plus 70 years.

For each sale of a Beatles recording, the owner of the copyright in the original work will continue to receive payment until this expires many years from now.

What will disappear is the right of individual record companies to maintain a monopoly on release of certain recordings. And this is what worries them.

The Beatles sound recordings emerging from copyright protection will no doubt prove a financial loss to some sectors of the UK's music industry. But it could also provide opportunities for other businesses, and for consumers alike.

Past influences

Creativity in music, film and literature is a cyclical process. New artists borrow from the past to create works to be valued in the future. In years to come, young songwriters may be looking back at the work produced by this years' crop of new talent - the Artic Monkeys, KT Tunstall, the Magic Numbers - and inspired by this will themselves create new, innovative works.

The Beatles
Copyright on the Beatles' sound recordings expire in 2013
But for government, the difficulty is in getting the balance right.

On the one hand, a powerful industry lobby, responsible for many UK jobs, says it needs this change in copyright law to survive. On the other, it is not the government's role to protect one section of industry at the expense of innovation in another.

It is what is sometimes called the Goldilocks problem - the need to provide copyright protection at a level that is not too much, not too little, but just right. An independent review team in the Treasury is now considering these problems and will report in autumn this year.

The debate surrounding whether it is right or wrong to increase copyright term is often presented as a choice between all or nothing: either continue to protect the Beatles' songs or give them away for nothing, and allow artists to be ripped off and the music industry to suffer.

But this false polarisation is not very helpful. The majority of works produced in the 50s and 60s are no longer of any commercial value. Many are out of circulation and unavailable to would be listeners.

Opportunities offered by the internet and digital distribution could allow niche providers to re-package and re-distribute old recordings, bringing previously 'lost' creative content to contemporary ears.

If you walk into a bookshop you can buy a copy of Dickens' Bleak House, or Austen's Pride and Prejudice for about 1.50. The copyright in these works has long expired so different publishers can compete to offer them at lower prices. Consumers have benefited from the works being out of protection.

So perhaps the expiration of copyright in sound recordings for the Beatles should not be seen as the end of music. Instead it could be the end of an era, perhaps.

It arrives at the start of new careers for new artists producing new and exciting music.

Kay Withers is a Research Fellow on the Digital Society & Media team at the Institute for Public Policy Research

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