Just in case copyright law was not confusing enough, a European Union committee has voted to tack another 20 years onto the 50 already allowed recordings in Europe. Tech Fruit credits the move to “a serious amount of lobbying from the entertainment industry and high profile ageing rockers like Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney.”
The EU Council of Ministers still has to pass on this, but if they give the “Cliff Richard Law” the nod, the creative reworking of artistic output will be pushed back two decades. Already the U.S. keeps works out of the public domain for 95 years after their date of publication. Canada extends copyright for 50 years after the creator’s death.
In theory, those long copyright protections encourage creativity by giving a work’s originator plenty of time to milk every possible penny from it. That much is good. Artists have enough of a struggle without having to see their works appear under someone else’s name, with no compensation offered or permission asked.
However, ask any artist not on the millionaire’s list how much he or she benefits from copyright extensions that keep on adding dollars to the coffers of the big labels. Being able to hang onto a lucrative copyright well after the death of the artists keeps money trickling, and sometimes rolling in, but does little to encourage new works or support new artists. And creativity is, after all, the point of offering copyright protection. Can anyone really argue that Patty and Mildred Hill, who wrote “Happy Birthday to You” in 1893 are in any way benefiting from the copyright that won’t expire in the U.S. until 2030 (2016 in the EU)?
A fascinating exploration of the whole messy ball of wax is RiP: A Remix Manifesto. The filmmakers point out that a small handful of Hollywood studios and major record labels control the lion’s share of the film and music market. They argue “the past always tries to control the future” and “to build free societies you need to limit control of the past.” The film ends with the example of Brazil, where loosening of copyright restrictions has encouraged youth in the favelas to create a new culture by remixing the old.
Most works fall off the marketing wagon within a few years, or even months, after publication. Lengthy copyright protection offers little to them. The primary beneficiaries are a handful of wealthy artists and companies.
The first copyright law gave book publishers 14 years to profit from their investment. Whether that is sufficient is a worthy topic for ongoing discussion, but granting copyright well beyond the life of the creators it was intended to protect is questionable practice at best, censorship at worst.
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