This one’s easy. I’ve been saying this for a while now, and it never fails to get me into an animated discussion. I’ve listened to all the arguments, read all the reports, heard convincing arguments about copyright extension and for complete overhaul of the copyright system.
And I’ve come to the following conclusion: The ideal term of both recording rights and composer’s rights is five years.
That’s right: Five. Not 95. Not 75. Not 50 or 25. Five. That number again: 5.
Now, we could get into a long discussion here about the purpose of copyright being a way to incentivise creativity.
Or that extended copyrights prevent orphaned works from entering the public domain.
Or that music is not simply commerce, but is more importantly culture.
Or that copyrights should not be a way for businesses to continue to exploit artists’ work decades after they have moved on to other things.
Or that musicians should have the right to earn from their creations forever.
Or that record labels take such risks, they should be allowed to continue to reap the reward of their investment.
All seemingly sound arguments, when looked at from a particular point of view. But I’m not even going to engage them in debate. In one sense or another, they’re all right. But there’s something more fundamental at stake here.
The core assumption is that when a copyright term is decided upon, that’s the copyright term for all things in all circumstances. And those who want copyright terms extended (usually corporate organisations sitting on vast mountains of back catalogue) generally get their way on these matters, as happened in Europe recently.
But the problem is – that doesn’t suit everybody. Least of all the audiences and creators of content who want to build, share and engage in culture.
How it works
What I am proposing is a 5 year renewable term of copyright. All works are registered at the point of their creation. In five years time, if there is still commercial potential that the rights owner wishes to make use of, then that person or organisation re-registers the work.
And they can renew it again after another five years. And so on.
Cliff Richard can still use royalties as a kind of retirement deal if he wants to. But works that are not considered economically viable properties by their owners can enter the public domain and become part of the rich tapestry of human culture, for use in independent films, hip hop samples – or whatever else.
But most importantly, this happens automatically. Inactivity at the five year mark will lead to the default position of public domain – not the default position (as is currently the case) of ‘you can’t use this’.
The technology to make this happen is simple and readily available, and with an open database of works, clearance would be greatly simplified and re-registration a very straightforward procedure (comparatively speaking).
It’s estimated that less than 2% of all music that has ever been released in a commercial format is currently for sale in any way, shape or form. That 6-million tracks thing that iTunes goes on about is hardly even the tip of the iceberg.
But long-term blanket licences prevent people from lawfully accessing that other 98% of music and breathing new life into it.
One stipulation I’d add to my renewable 5-year term is a ‘use it or lose it’ clause. If you have a registered work and you do not make it available to the public in a commercially available fashion during a 5-year term, then you lose the right to renew that licence.
Stockpiling creative works just to hoard them, without making them available to the public, loses you those works next time around.
Just think of all the amazing collections and compilations that would be available to listen to and explore if the archives were opened up as public domain for independent entrepreneurs to work in niche areas of music that the majors had just been warehousing because they didn’t consider it economic to re-issue and release.
Talk about your Long Tail…
The problem (mostly) solved
Current blanket copyright terms ‘protect’ (I use that term in the sense of ‘racket’) copyright owners so that they can continue to be paid over and over again for work they did years ago. It prevents anyone else from making money out of works that have been shelved.
It does not, in any real sense, ‘incentivise creativity’.
A five year renewable copyright term for recorded works and for compositions allows for people to continue to earn from their works, encourages the development of under-utilised assets, pours far more music into the public sphere for the good of culture, and provides opportunities for enterprise.
It doesn’t fix the fact that copyright law is still based on an old technological environment, and simply doesn’t work in the online environment – but getting that term thing sorted out would be a great start.