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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.”

12 replies on “Bono and Cliff: turkeys voting for Christmas”

The article seems to be a tiny bit Communistic, as if the fact that the songs are very much loved and popular, to the extent of having generated lots of revenue, means that anybody requiring to be paid properly for making them available is a greedy pig. Would you prefer those corporations to not exist? That’s where we get the music. Personally, I would rather that those who make the music available to us would continue to have a good reason to continue to do so. I have noticed that those who hold rancor toward those who have riches are almost always people who don’t have riches. That’s called “envy,” one of the deadly sins.

-Rock

eh? Read the article next time. They corporations are – and will remain – exceedingly well off due to the current copyright laws. No one is talking about *reducing* the current copyright term on sound recordings.

The companies would appear to want us to change the law to make more money for them by default. The article, and others like it, essentially say that they should be making money by doing what they do (bringing songs to market and selling large numbers of them) well and efficiently – that the market will rewards companies who are good at this, and punishes those who are bad at it just fine under the current rules – without any need for further government intervention. Not much communism there now is there?

>>The article seems to be a tiny bit Communistic,

Marx was always against the record industry.

>>as if the fact that the songs are very much loved and popular, to the extent of having generated lots of revenue, means that anybody requiring to be paid properly for making them available is a greedy pig.

Nobody has argued that the artist shouldn’t be paid. If you read the article the point is that extending the copyright on the sound recording means that the record company gets paid – the artist does not necessarily benefit at all. In any case, the artist would get paid for writing the song for their lifetime plus 70 years. Somehow I fail to see how they lose out.

>>Would you prefer those corporations to not exist?

Personally, yes I would. The record industry makes no sense any more. There is reliance on very short-term income but they even manage to scupper that by releasing records to radio that you can’t buy for 6 weeks. I hear a song on the radio that I like, I go into a record shop to buy it and it doesn’t exist. By the time it is released I’ve heard it so many times that I’m sick of it. Good marketing! Then they complain that single sales are down.

>>I have noticed that those who hold rancor toward those who have riches are almost always people who don’t have riches. That’s called “envy,” one of the deadly sins.

The word “duh!” comes to mind. Since you brought it up,Rocky (if that’s your real name!), you will also be familiar with the other sin – Greed. Yes, you’re right. Most people envy the lifestyle of rock and pop artists – but they usually don’t seem to begrudge them their success. Most people, however, do seem to begrudge rich and famous people moaning that they might become a little less rich.

The record industry makes no sense any more.

I’d disagree: it certainly does a lot of things that make no sense, such as the insane gap between radio release and retail, but I think it plays a valuable role in bringing acts to our attention. The internet democratisation is nice, but every single one of my favourite acts came via record firms (in some cases, via the manufactured pop route).

What is sad, though, is that outside the indie world there are very few mavericks in charge any more. Which is good news for shareholders but not so good for music lovers.

That said, the record business perpetuates the idea that without them, without money, musicians wouldn’t create. That’s bollocks as ten seconds on MySpace proves.

Back to the copyright thing, though: record companies already enjoy the strongest form of protection in any industry, so while other forms of IP protection expire after 20, 25 years recordings of pop songs are already protected for double that amount and composers’ rights for considerably longer. As david says, nobody’s arguing that the term should be shortened, but the report the labels are currently lobbying about came to the conclusion that there is no compelling case for government to make it longer.

Actually, thinking about this some more: if we really wanted to change copyright law to better protect the creators, a simple change would do it: changing the system so that copyrights cannot be transferred, only licenced, and that licences expire if the works aren’t made available for a specified period of time. That’d wipe out the problem where young, impressionable popsters sign away incredibly lucrative copyrights for 50 years in exchange for a pizza, a few beers and a bit of flattery, and it would also end the situation where the majority of creative output is locked away in vaults.

Those are two brilliant ideas, and the second one should be extended to all works. If publishers let a book go out of print, anyone should be able to reproduce it in any medium.

Well, if you agree with the – IMO, perfectly reasonable – definition of copyright set out in the US constitution – “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” – then letting stuff fall out of print and into vaults is against the spirit of copyright. A “use it or lose it” system would redress the balance somewhat.

I’m not suggesting that if the works aren’t exploited then they should immediately fall into the public domain; I’m suggesting that if the exclusive licence isn’t used for a specified period of time, the copyright owner – the creator – can take his or her work elsewhere. They can give it away, they can licence it to someone else, whatever. That way you’re keeping to the “promote” bit of copyright.

To give you an example of how daft copyright can be: “happy birthday” was written in 1893 as “good morning to all” by two sisters, the Hills, who died unmarried and childless. The copyright only applies to the words, because the melody was filched lock stock and barrel from the Hills’ composition, which is in the public domain.

It’s worth noting here that nobody knows who changed “good morning to all” to “happy birthday”. The changed lyrics first appeared in print in 1924 as an additional verse to “good morning to all”, but it’s unclear whether the credited author actually wrote the words. Doesn’t matter anyway, because he doesn’t have the copyright.

11 years later, a third Hill sister – working with the Summy publishing company – successfully argued that Happy Birthday was ripping off her sisters’ melody. She – or rather, Summy – then got the copyright to someone else’s words. It’s credited as a work for hire (for Summy) by Preston Ware Oram, but it’s very doubtful that Oram wrote the lyrics – they’d been around for 11 years before he put pen to paper and during that time the song as we know it today had been widely performed, even in musicals.

Summy was bought by an accountant in the 30s; Warners bought the resulting firm in 1998. The song generates around two million dollars in royalties every year – none of which go to the person who wrote Happy Birthday, because nobody knows who that person was. It’s believed that the royalties are split between charities and a surviving nephew of the Hill sisters (who, of course, didn’t write the song that’s actually copyrighted).

> letting stuff fall out of print and into vaults is against the spirit of copyright.

Absolutely. It annoys me no end that record companies regard as criminals anyone who makes a copy of someone else’s copy of, say, It’s Grim Up North by the Jams, when that is in fact the only possible way of obtaining a copy of that record, because the record company won’t let anyone have it. That was fair enough in the days when records had to be hard physical media and so rereleasing them cost a lot of money, but it amazes me that no major record company has yet thought “Hang on! Why don’t we stick all our artists’ entire back-catalogues on the Web for 10p a track?” They’d make gazillions.

The Propellerheads’ second album was ready years ago. Wall Of Sound have never released it; looks like they never will, the selfish gits. I, for one, want to hear it. See also Deep End by Sirenes — the record company even got as far as promoting that one, with the singles having “Taken from the album Deep End” printed on them — and Cooler’s album, which was also finished but never released, and not because the band didn’t want it released.

Yeah, you get into the long tail thing here: presumably most of this stuff is in vaults because the labels, publishers etc can’t see a way of making money from it. But if you’ve got the distribution platform already – the net – then the cost of distribution, manufacturing etc is effectively zero, so you can afford to offer this stuff for exceptionally low prices. One track at 10p won’t boost the bank balance, but 1 billion 10 pences… and if publishers aren’t doing it, punters are file sharing it instead.

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