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A Refreshing Change March 5, 2009

Posted by Dominic in Uncategorized.
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It was raining. It was cold and it was dark. But despite that, and the forecast of more snow, dozens of students turned out for a debate on copyright term. I made my way to the London Metropolitan University on the Holloway Road in North London to chew over the rights and wrongs of copyright term extension with three other speakers, chaired by Scott Cohen, co-founder of The Orchard.

The great thing about engaging in a debate with students is that the discussion is fresh and nothing is taken for granted. The evening started with the basic case for extending copyright term because of the thousands of performers who are treated as second class creators, having a shorter copyright term than other creators. On a CD, the graphics, the lyrics, the sleeve notes, the musical notes all have a copyright of life plus 70 years. The recording, the reason for buying the CD, is limited to 50 years from release.

The first challenge was that extending copyright would lock up content. Would the record companies just sit on their archives and fail to release old recordings? This of course was covered in the original draft of the European legislation. Commissioner Charlie McCreevy had cut through all the arguments over the commercial drive to release 50 year old recordings by including a use-it-or-lose-it clause in the Commission’s draft Directive published last July. A few people questioned why record companies should benefit from copyright term extension and again, this had been anticipated by the European Commission by their inclusion of a number of clauses that shifted the benefits in favour of performers, in particular session musicians.

Next up was a proposal that master rights should only be protected if they were owned by the artist. That was dismissed by several attendees as discriminatory. Why should owners of sound recordings be treated differently depending on whether or not they were artists?

Then we got onto the more interesting discussions. One person suggested that copyrights are the same as patents and should have the same period of protection. Another student responded that a patent for a medicine was very different from a recording. The recording is yours but you cannot claim to own a scientific discovery. There was then a proposition that copyright is a bargain or a contract and that the terms should not be changed. That received a similar response as copyright is a basic ownership right. The bargain is the trade over that piece of creative property.

Finally, a member of the audience pointed out that there had been an opportunity to sort this out in 1988 when the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act was enacted. All agreed this would have been easier.

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