Going for a song

Changing the intellectual copyright laws spells disaster for the creative community

After nine months' gestation, Andrew Gowers is to deliver his review into UK intellectual property law. Commissioned by the Treasury, it has attracted a cacophony of responses to its call for evidence. In the internet era, intellectual property law is a polarising issue. Whereas many in the creative industries see state-granted protections such as copyright as a key defence in the digital age, those in the tech world see it as arcane in a time when information can be shared at the click of a mouse.

An issue generating a lot of noise is the proposal that copyright in sound recordings be extended from 50 to 95 years. A golden age in recorded sound is about to "fall" into the public domain, and the end of the world for the recording industry (and, coincidentally, the ancient Mayans) is 2012, the final year the Beatles' 1962 recording of "Love Me Do" is protected by copyright. The actual composition is protected until 70 years after Sir Paul McCartney's death.

Sir Cliff Richard, who unlike McCartney did not compose many of his own songs, has been campaigning on the issue for more than two years. He characterises recording royalties as a pension for artists, and voices supporting him in the press have argued that a failure to extend the term would represent "the greatest pension fund raid of all time". But as digital rights campaigner ORG points out, the figures tell a different story.

Thanks to the recording industry's standard practice of recouping production and promotional costs from artists' royalties in sales, only around 20 per cent of musicians who cut a record receive any royalties at all. Of that 20 per cent, studies show that a mere 16 per cent receive more than £1,000 a year. Quite apart from the fact that most other professionals provide for their old age with income received during their working life, this doesn't look like much of a fund for Gordon Brown to get his hands on.

The real winners from extension would be the few artists whose recordings are commercially successful 50 years after release, and the major record labels that represent them. Even then, the industry stands to gain less than 0.2 per cent of its annual contribution to UK GDP.

But there will be losers, too. The British Library, responsible for a huge sound archive, warns that a retrospective extension would bring almost all the UK's audio history back into copyright. "Given the current legislation," observes its intellectual property manifesto, "this would effectively mean a significant percentage of our holdings would decay and be unavailable to future generations."

If Gowers extends the term, thousands of commercially worthless but culturally significant recordings could be ripped from posterity. If Sir Cliff is worried about his pension, perhaps he might consider asking for rent next time the Blairs stay at his Barbados holiday home.