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European Parliament pass copyright extension

By | Published on Friday 24 April 2009

So, the European Parliament yesterday voted in favour of extending the copyright term for sound recordings from the current 50 year term up to 70 years, not quite what the music industry has been pushing for, though better than nothing I guess.

Not that this means records released back in 1958 are suddenly back in copyright, there are still hurdles to be crossed at the European level, not to mention the legislative ramblings that will be required in the UK to actually apply any European decision to British copyright law (plus I’m not sure the extension will be retrospective so to cover recordings already out of copyright). And it’s worth noting that getting European Parliament approval was never going to be the biggest hurdle to cross.

As much previously reported, years of lobbying by the record industry to try to persuade political types to extend the copyright on sound recordings from 50 years to something nearing the US copyright term of 95 years has resulted in proposals for term extension being put forward at a European level.

While there is much support for the extension, including, as of this year, from the UK government, there are two debates ongoing. First, how long should the extended term be. And second, once the original fifty years are up should artists involved in a recording, that is most likely owned by a record company and therefore not paying much out to said artists under existing copyright rules, get a bigger cut of the pie, oblivious of the existing contractual arrangement between artist and label?

With regards the former debate, opinions differ between the current 50 years and the industry preferred 95 years. With regards the latter, the proposals on the table do include some provisions to ensure artists benefit more in the extended copyright period; but, some argue, not enough.

Anyway, the whole thing went before the European Parliament yesterday, which is where all those MEPs you’ve never heard of get to vote on things. They rejected the proposal of a 95 year term, but backed an extension to 70 years.

They also rejected a Green Party motion that proposed that in the extended copyright period ownership should automatically revert to the artist (a motion supported, as previously reported, by Billy Bragg and the Featured Artist Coalition), but supported the aforementioned provisions that ensue artists and musicians do get a higher automatic royalty from fifty year plus revenues, and added rules to ensure labels can’t use past contracts to invalidate those provisions.

They also passed a ‘use it or lose it’ provision, whereby artists whose 50 year old recordings are owned by a label who are not currently making them legitimately available for sale can make a claim to gain ownership of said tracks. Basically artists can request that a record contract more than 50 years old be terminated as a result of a label’s failure to make their recordings available. The label then has a year to put the recordings on sale, otherwise the contract will be terminated. Given that these days making music available has very little cost attached to it – find the master recordings, ingest to MP3, supply to download stores – presumably any operational record company would get an artists’ tracks onto iTunes rather than allow a contract be terminated.

So, what does all this mean? Well, nothing really until the other much bigger European hurdle can be crossed – the European Council. This is the committee made up of relevant ministers from each European Union country. As previously reported, there have already been problems getting term extension proposals past the Council. A preliminary meeting that considered the proposals before they even reached the main Council failed to pass them, partly because the UK expressed concerns that the provisions that benefit artists over labels didn’t go far enough, and partly because a number of other countries said they were opposed to the extension full stop.

Those who back the extension in Council think that Parliament’s support for a 70 year term, rather than for 95 years, may provide an acceptable compromise for those countries who have so far opposed any extension. Though whether that is true, and whether the UK can persuade other Council members to address its concerns about musician rights, all remains to seen. Certainly this story is by no means over yet.

But that’s no reason not to let those UK trade bodies who support the extension proposals as they currently stand to make some sort of statement about them being passed, albeit amended, by the European Parliament.

The bosses of record label trade bodies the BPI and AIM, the Musician’s Union and recording rights collecting society PPL, all said, at exactly the same time: “Today’s supporting vote in the European Parliament recognises fairness and the benefit copyright term extension will bring to artists, producers, performers and music companies. We welcome the vote and urge the EU member states in the Council to follow Parliament’s lead and support the proposal”.