When the Gowers Review on intellectual monopolies came out almost exactly two years ago, it was remarkable for its eminently sensible approach, which was rigorously based on hard-headed economics. One of its key recommendations was the following:
that the European Commission does not change the status quo and retains the 50 year term of copyright protection for sound recordings and related performers' rights.
This was obviously the last thing that the music copyright lobby wanted to hear, and ever since it has been pounding hard to get that recommendation – accepted by the UK Government – overturned.
It looks like it has finally managed, as the FT reported last week:
Andy Burnham, the culture secretary, is expected to use a speech to UK Music, an industry body, to announce that Britain is willing to support an extension to the existing 50 years of copyright. The government remains reluctant to endorse a 95-year limit proposed by Charlie McCreevy, the internal market commissioner, which would bring Europe into line with the US. Ministers prefer a compromise "lifetime" limit of about 70 years.
The argument he used was strange, to say the least:
"There is a moral case for performers benefiting from their work throughout their lifetime and that is why we are considering an extension to [the] copyright term."
Much as I am a fan of morality, it's got nothing to do with copyright, which is a bargain – a quid pro quo. In return for giving artists the right to exclude others from copying their work, they promise to place that work into the public domain for all to use after a set number of years. That number is currently 50 years, as it was when the artists during the last few decades accepted the bargain. And if you're going to invoke “morality”, what about the “morality” of taking away from the public what was promised to them as part of the deal all those years ago?
I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who feels this way:
Copyright is an economic instrument, not a moral one, and if you consider the economic arguments – as I did two years ago at the request of Gordon Brown – you will find that they do not stack up. All the respectable research shows that copyright extension has high costs to the public and negligible benefits for the creative community.
Consumers find themselves paying more for old works or unable to access “orphan works” where copyright ownership is unclear. Small businesses that play recorded music such as hairdressing salons and local radio stations face a hidden extra “tax” in the form of higher music-licence fees. Do they really need this at this time?
Mr Burnham will no doubt find such arguments uncool. But even on his terms, the case for extension does not work. Twenty years’ extra earning power in 50 years’ time does nothing to put more money in the pockets of struggling performers now: two thirds of lifetime income from an average compact disc comes in the first six years after release.
And it will not alter the incentives for creation one jot. As Dave Rowntree, Blur’s drummer, told my review: “I have never heard of a single band deciding not to record a song because it will fall out of copyright in only 50 years. The idea is laughable.”
And whose words are these? Why, none other than Andrew Gowers, who once again shows his deep grasp of copyright. Pity that the government is likely to ignore all appeals to logic, and to join the EU in a retrograde extension of the term of copyright protection for sound recordings that will give practically nothing to hard-working musicians, lots to the parasitic music business fat cats - and take away from everyone else through the enclosure of the public domain for another 20 years.