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A campaign lobbying for blanket extension of copyright for performers produced this very effective video, which is an open letter to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Filmed at Abbey Road Studios in London, it features professional session musicians who put their case.

I happen to disagree with it – but not because I don’t want those people to earn money. I disagree with it because simply making the laws we have apply for a longer period of time overlooks one very important fact: the laws we have do not do the job they are supposed to do, and in large part the reason for that is that the technological environment has changed.

Copyright law needs to be completely re-written.
There’s no use extending laws in blanket fashion when those laws are completely faulty in the first place. Extending copyright indefinitely (which is what they’re essentially asking for) might be financially good for them (though actually it’s not as simple as that) and may satisfy their sense of entitlement for the time being, but it’s not good for culture at large.

Now, I should try and make this bit absolutely clear: If the recordings are being used for commercial purposes, then I have no problem with those artists being paid.

I’ve explained this at length in the past. I’ve been willfully misunderstood and misrepresented on that point, and I suspect I will be here again too – but such is life. That said, I’ll try again:

I am on the side of the musicians in this video. I want for them to continue to earn money – and I think that, for the most part, they should earn more than they currently do. I believe that the argument they are mounting misrepresents the actual problem of copyright, undermines their actual goals, and is bad for culture, society and music in general.

I am not anti-copyright. I think it is so important that to merely patch and extend as they suggest is to reinforce all of the inherent problems it currently has. However, when you’re considering a position from the point of view of personal financial gain, but arguing it from the point of view of morality and fairness, its very easy to dismiss alternative positions as outrageous and unfair.

So – to clarify – let me highlight THREE problems here:

1) This plea from musicians is not about copyright extension. This is about BLANKET copyright extension. It would apply to all recordings whether they are commercially available or not. Copyright is about permission. This extension would further prevent permission to use the works even being sought (let alone being granted) in the case of MOST music.

2) Existing copyright law fails to recognise and indeed criminalises many of the kinds of activity that many people – predominantly young people – use internet technologies for. Existing copyright is digital media illiterate. I refer you to this video for further explanation.

3) Copyright extension fails to recognise that most recorded works are not available to the public in any way. It privileges only those musicians whose works are currently commercially available, and does not in any way consider what’s good for culture and the general public.

So – it’s one thing to say ‘I spent an afternoon playing guitar on a Mannfred Mann song one day 45 years ago, and I think I should still be earning for that afternoon’s work in 50 years time’ (which, actually, I’m more than fine with) but quite another to lock ALL music up for 100 years and make it illegal to do anything with it (sampling, remixing, mash-ups, re-issues of public domain works) regardless of whether people are actively earning from it or not.

Saying no to blanket copyright extension is just the first step.

It’s not a refusal to let these people earn. It’s an admission that our existing copyright laws don’t work and that public access to culture is important too. But it’s no good leaving it there. This just affirms the status quo.

The next step is copyright reform
Rewrite the laws from scratch to acknowledge and respect the rights and responsibilities of composers, performers, publishers, record labels, consumers and – most importantly – citizens.

One of the musicians invokes Obama in the plea to Brown. I think they’re in for a surprise there. Of all the leaders of state making decisions about this over the next few years, Obama seems most likely to recognise the full extent of the issue and instigate a genuine review of copyright law – rather than merely make the old, problematic laws we do have apply for a much longer period of time.

So yes, Mr Brown. Please do consider the rights and the earning capacity of these professional musicians. But please don’t ignore everything and everyone else and end up locking down culture indefinitely in the process.

Thanks to Andrew Cowie for sending me the video link.