Bono and Cliff: turkeys voting for Christmas

In today’s Guardian Marina Hyde does a nifty skewering of rich rock stars’ attempts to increase the lifespan of copyright:

The four record giants – Warners, EMI, Sony-BMG and Universal – own the vast majority of the recording copyrights in question, and it is they who will reap almost all the royalties.

It’s really important to note that this current spat is only about the copyright in sound recordings, which are usually owned by the record companies. The copyright in the actual compositions – ie, the rights that apply to the actual creators of music rather than multinational corporations – are already protected for a period of the composer’s life plus 70 years. So while the recordings themselves may fall out of copyright, the composers will still get paid if those recordings are played on the radio.

As Andrew Gowers, author of the copyright report that’s currently being looked at by the government, puts it: extending the term of copyright for sound recordings would only benefit “an exceptional few stars, who are already fabulously rich.” The names on the FT advert are, generally speaking, an exceptional few stars, who are already fabulously rich: U2, Eric Clapton, Cliff Richard, Paul McCartney, Robbie Williams, etc etc etc.

U2 et al are in a very unusual position. It’s not that they’re so rich they have to move their business affairs abroad to avoid tax, although they are and they have; it’s that they’re such a big concern and worth so much money that they can more or less write their own record company contracts – so I’ll be amazed if U2’s current record deal doesn’t give U2 the copyright to the recordings as well as the songwriting.

However, that is not the way the record business usually works. When a band signs a record deal, the record company owns the sound recordings – which is why there are countless tales of artists being told that their record won’t be released because the record company doesn’t like it. It’s only when you become as big as U2 – which, I suspect, is something we’re unlikely to see many of today’s bands doing – that you’ve got the necessary muscle to get the copyrights back.

In essence, then, if you’re already a multi-millionaire, extending the term of copyright in sound recordings will make you richer. If you’re not a multi-millionaire, extending the term of copyright will make your record company richer.

It does seem rather strange that musicians are throwing their weight behind record companies – the FT ad Hyde refers to was placed on behalf of “3,500 record companies”, with your Bonos and Cliffs as figureheads – when those companies aren’t exactly nice to composers: in the US, the RIAA is demanding that publishing royalties are cut because, er, publishing firms didn’t stick their heads in the sand about the internet and found various ways to make money.

As the digital music weblog puts it:

Sometimes you just have to ask yourself if the RIAA could display more greed or avarice without actually hiring Satan as its general counsel… “During the period when piracy was devastating the record industry, the RIAA argues, profits for publishers rose as revenue generated from ringtones and other innovative services grew. Record industry executives said there was nothing strange about seeking a rate change that would pay less to the people who write the music.”