He may be a knight, one of the most successful music artists and a noted viniculturalist, but Sir Cliff Richard is not resting on his laurels. Add legal reform campaigner to this list as the Peter Pan of Pop leads the quest to change UK copyright law.
Copyright can be deceptively simple on the face of it, but scratch the surface and you reveal the complexity of co-existing legal rights. Take Sir Cliff's 1959 best selling single 'Living Doll'. Various copyrights exist in relation to this "classic" including copyright in the song (written by Lionel Bart), the sound recording (held by the record label) and rights of the individual musicians who played on the track. That's before you consider the various degrees of protection and duration that each right offers. For the songwriter and their family, the royalty cheques should continue to come in for life plus a further 70 years, but for the owner of the sound recording, rights cease 50 years after the recording was made.
Sir Cliff's concern is the impending expiry of copyright in his back catalogue. Copyright for his recording of ‘Living Doll’ ends in 2009, after which the track can be commercially exploited by anyone. Sir Cliff now argues that the 50-year protection of sound recordings be extended to 95 years, and he has some influential allies in his campaign such as British Phonographic Industries Limited (BPI), which represents the major record labels.
The backdrop for this mis-en-scene is a prospective overhaul of intellectual property (IP) law in the UK.
Former FT editor Andrew Gowers was appointed by the Government in 2005 to head a public consultation looking at wholesale review of the IP system including copyright.
Arguments put forward by the Sir Cliff/BPI lobby are threefold. First, extending UK copyright protection will harmonise our law in line with the United States, where as a result of a 1998 copyright extension law introduced by another vintage pop icon (turned US congressman), Sonny Bono, copyright in sound recordings lasts for 95 years. UK record companies are valued in part according to the portfolio of copyrights held and claim they will lose out in the global music industry to US competitors.
Secondly, revenue from back catalogue sales provides funding for labels to find and nurture new talent. If record companies can squeeze revenue out of existing copyright works for longer, the more there will be in the pot to help them find the next Cliff Richard.
Lastly, point of particular interest to Sir Cliff (66), is that the revenues from extending copyright will provide a pension fund for many retired musicians, who as Sir Cliff pleads, give life to the recordings.
This is where copyright law's complexities start to reveal themselves. Sir Cliff is championing the rights of performers, but copyright in the sound recordings is usually under control of the record companies. Performers may gain from extended exploitation of their work, but arguably, it is the established major labels that will be the prime financial beneficiaries of this extension.
Andrew Gowers was due to report his findings this autumn. However these have been delayed due to the massive response to the consultation. Results of the review are difficult to predict. Although what is clear is that current periods of copyright protection are likely to feature in Andrew Gowers' thoughts, particularly if the Prime Minister's summer holiday host has any say.
Kenneth Mullen is a partner specialising in Media and Technology with UK law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn. 020 7429 4910.