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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.