With Elvis Presley's recent success in the UK singles chart, it seems
that the commercial potential of the King of Rock 'n' Roll has barely diminished
since his death 27 years ago. The re-release of 18 of his hit singles to mark
what would have been his 70th birthday has seen him reach the No. 1 spot three
times in recent months. However, one could forgive the cynics for rolling their
eyes at what they perceive as a record company once again lazily and unashamedly
milking an old and trusted cash cow.
Whether you consider Elvis' recent resurgence as a healthy dose of nostalgia
or mere commercial opportunism, it is clear that the death knell has sounded
for the record companies' monopoly on older recordings of artistic works. From
1 January, copies of songs made 50 years after their original release may now
be made anywhere in Europe without the need for payment to the copyright owner.
Works by Elvis and Bill Haley and the Comets have already fallen outwith the
scope of full protection, and this will be followed by numerous other successful
acts in the coming years (the most prized asset in music, the Beatles back
catalogue, will be available for copying in full by 2013).
Now the record companies are fighting back. Through their trade association,
the British Phonographic Industry, they are lobbying the EU Commission to extend
copyright term in artists' music in line with their foreign counterparts.
The owner of a copyright work has the exclusive right to, and the power to
authorise others to, copy, lend, perform or adapt the work. Copyright arises
automatically in artists' works and no registration of the right is possible
in the UK. A © symbol is often attached by artists to denote that they
consider the fruits of their labour to be so protected. Some even send their
work to themselves by recorded delivery, leaving the envelope unopened on its
arrival in order that they could prove that they were in possession of it at
a certain date and thus were its original author.
Two forms of copyright are created in any song - one vesting in the writer
when the song is written and the other in the artist when the song is recorded.
The former is protected for 70 years after the death of the writer but the
latter is only protected for 50 years from the end of the calendar year in
which it was released. Thus, while the copying of certain older sound recordings
may no longer infringe the copyright of the artist and his record company,
royalties may still be due to the writer of the song.
Record companies insist that, in the absence of a level playing field, the
British music industry and the new talent it continually nurtures will inevitably
suffer. In the USA for example, copyright protection lasts for 95 years after
the recording was made. The argument is that increased longevity puts foreign
music industries at an unfair advantage over the UK's record industry, increasing
their income and in turn allowing them to invest more heavily in emerging talent.
The British Phonographic Industry argues that the income derived from back
catalogues allows them to put faith in and take risks on new music and has
recently assisted in spawning the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Snow Patrol.
Without this, they argue, the next generation of British musical talent may
Unsurprisingly, supporters of the status quo see the current campaign as little
more than corporate greed. They argue that 50 years is a sufficient time to
draw profits from a song and that, rather than stifling the creativity of new
artists, the time limit dispels the laziness inherent in re-releasing old songs,
spurring the record companies into searching for fresh talent.
Increasing the power of the major corporations would also put further pressure
on the smaller independent labels, seen by many as the unsung heroes who initially
unearth new acts. The release of culturally, if not commercially, important
music currently held in record companies' archives is also seen as a boon by
music lovers. Otherwise such works might needlessly remain outside the public
domain for many more years.
No matter the merits of the arguments, the revenue and feeling which music
generates will ensure this particular fight is far from over.