Pity poor Cliff

Some surprising people are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the record industry

It’s hard to feel sorry for Sirs Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney, and very easy to dismiss the call this week for copyright on music recordings to be extended from 50 years to 95 or even 'life plus 70 years'. The poor things have been at it for so long that their early recordings are starting to fall out of copyright, which means they will soon begin to miss out on some royalties.

I have blogged about this issue before, in connection with internet file-sharing, and come out firmly in favour of keeping the law as it is or, ideally, reducing the term to as little as 10 years. In my view it is only a good thing that classic recordings from the early days of rock and soul will soon be free to be reissued or remixed by anyone who appreciates them.

A campaign led by the record industry last autumn, in which they placed a full-page advert in the Financial Times naming 4,500 artists who supported an extension, seemed to have failed when the Treasury's independent Gowers Review was published in December and recommended keeping the status quo.

That seemed to have settled the issue, but now the campaign has hotted up again. It’s good to see intellectual property law moving up the political agenda, but many elected representatives seem to be joining the wrong side, teaming up with the record industry against the interests of the public.

Emotively citing the plight of the widow of Lonnie Donegan, whose recordings from the 1950s will soon stop paying her what amounts to a small pension, MP Michael Connarty has tabled an Early Day Motion in Parliament which has attracted 77 signatures so far, including some surprising names such as Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Dennis Skinner.

How come these defenders of the common man are lining up to help add a few zeros to Sir Cliff's future pay cheques? I wouldn’t for a minute suggest that these sane and sensible public figures had been influenced by the free CD of golden oldies sent to MPs by Phonographic Performance Limited, who collect royalties on behalf of record companies. They do, however, seem to have fallen for the image of the artist struggling in old age, living on royalties from recordings of their youth.

The House of Commons Culture Committee has also come to a similar conclusion, citing the fact that 7,000 musicians will lose royalties from recordings made in the 50s and 60s over the next decade and saying “Given the strength and importance of the creative industries in the UK, it seems extraordinary that the protection of intellectual property rights should be weaker here than in many other countries where creative industries are less successful.”

Think again about that statement. We have a stronger creative industry than countries with fiercer copyright laws. What then is their argument for an extension? The Gowers Review in fact concluded that if works were protected for longer, not only consumers but also ‘follow-on creators’ would be disadvantaged. It said, “the estates and heirs of performers would potentially be able to block usage rights, which may affect future creativity and innovation… Thus extending term may have negative implications for all creators.”

There is also plenty of evidence that the people who really gain from long copyright terms aren’t artists and performers at all but the record companies leading the campaign for more control. The Open Rights Group, who are opposed to the abuse of digital rights and campaign for copyright reform and greater access to knowledge, has detailed how most innovation in the UK music scene comes from independent labels that are not dependent on long-ago hits, and that only a tiny minority of artists receive the bulk of royalties. Less than half a percent of artists receive anything that could be called a ‘pension’ and most receive nothing at all beyond their original advance. In reality, it is only the record companies who are making money, as they take their accumulated share of royalty payments from the large catalogues they control.

Record companies love being able to reissue the same set of recordings in 'new' combinations, as it brings profits for very little investment. But it is still only a small minority of past hits that benefit from this. Hackneyed old floor-fillers require much less promotion to bring a return than either lesser known re-releases or new talent. New artists in particular need everything from risky tours to high-cost videos to make their name, so why not cut the creativity and milk another 15 years out of their back catalogues. Why not? Because the public have paid for these recordings many times over, and it would be much better for our music industry if it was forced to find new artists to turn a profit.

I think this campaign sounds like a stuck record. The post-cassette era has been well-established for decades now and the internet has changed irrevocably most people’s attitudes to what is reasonable to copy, mix up and share. The rest of us need to start writing to our confused, out of touch MPs and point out that this debate should have ended a long time ago.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.