Copyright Kerfuffle

In a recent decision, the Council of the European Union voted to extend copyrights on musical recordings from a total of 50 to 70 years. This has brought the European Union more in line with the United States, which in 1998 extended copyright duration by the same period for authors and “for works of corporate authorship” from 95-120 years from the date of creation or publication. The law, known as the Copyright Term Extension Act, retroactively extended a number of significant copyrights about to enter the public domain, most notably Disney’s “Mickey Mouse” character.

In 2009, the Parliament of the European Union approved a 95 year extension of musical copyrights, but at the risk of appearing even more transparently corrupt than usual, the Council amended the proposal to the recently passed “life plus 70 years” rule. The justification being offered is as follows, “Performers generally start their careers young and the current term of protection of 50 years often does not protect their performances for their entire lifetime. Therefore, some performers face an income gap at the end of their lifetimes. They are also often not able to rely on their rights to prevent or restrict objectionable uses of their performances that may occur during their lifetimes.”

While the compassion of the European Union for aging musicians is commendable, the timing is curious. Take, for instance, the recordings of the Beatles – some of the most persistently profitable recordings in history, which under the former copyright statutes of the European Union were set to enter the public domain. Prof. Martin Kretschmer – a leading opponent of the law, points out “Labels do not want to lose the revenues of the classic recordings of the 1960s which are reaching the end of their current 50 year term. Rather than innovating, right holders find it much easier to exclude competition.” Further, “72 percent of the financial benefits from term extension will accrue to record labels. Of the 28 percent that will go to artists, most of the money will go to superstar acts…”
It appears, without going into exhaustive detail, that the argument given by the EU fails to stand up to scrutiny. Powerful political institutions are not moral agents, and respond to pressures from dominant sectors of their population (in this case, the entertainment industry). “Piracy” has significantly diminished the profits of the entertainment industry in the last decade, and copyright protection and violation are mutually adapting into increasingly complex forms.

Far from robbing artists, piracy strikes at the economic basis of artist exploitation by archaic but powerful institutions, which were originally nothing but concentrated capital with a stanglehold over old forms of distribution (physical copies of recordings). As the modern music industry evolved, artists gradually came under the de facto control of record labels that acted as gatekeepers, with power over the medium by which artists could bring their content to the masses. This is the historic reality of the entertainment industry, which now serves practically no useful purpose and simply exercises its political and economic clout to sustain itself. No credible interpretation of recent changes in both US and EU copyright law exists outside mere corporate self-interest. In short, these changes in no way serve the public and, if Prof. Kretschmer’s figures are accurate, have swindled the public out of over a billion dollars.
Shockingly, some of the older artists have had the audacity to come out in favor of the changes, supporting the aforementioned argument that as they collectively approach retirement they will need the proceeds of their earlier recordings more than ever. This is especially insulting to the public in an era when economic austerity is being hypocritically preached to the public as the remedy to the latest collapse – the product of another set of parasitic institutions. As public sector workers in Greece find their collective retirement on the chopping block, one might wonder why artists who have done comparatively better need to resort to restructuring the law in lieu of saving a portion of their considerable earnings for retirement. The reason, of course, is that while these artists are acting in their own self-interest – that interest happens to align with the agenda of the international entertainment industry.

In conclusion, the 1998 change to US copyright law and its EU equivalent have demonstrated that the entire social justification for copyright has collapsed and along with it the public domain. The legal protection of the economic incentive to create has been eclipsed by yet another form of “corporate welfare” that will lend the entertainment industry fiscal solvency for another generation. How ironic, that the legacy of the cultural flourishing of the 60’s has been harnessed to retard creativity and enshrine the rights of reactionary institutions.