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.