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In The City The case against extending copyright terms for sound recordings may have won some heavyweight backing from think tank IPPR this week, but it received a predictable mauling at Britain's biggest music convention, In The City.

A panel discussing the issue was loaded with advocates for extending copyright terms, and only one dissenter: Louise Ferguson of the clumsily-named Open Rights Group.

What's an "open" right, we found ourselves wondering, distractedly - one you can reverse engineer or modify? Two advocacy buzzwords appear to have crashed into each other without much thought for the consequences.

The panel included public advocates Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull infamy) and veteran session man Joe Brown, Dominic McGonigal of the PPL, the performing rights collection agency, and David Stopps, head of copyrights at the Music Managers Forum and WIPO rep. Nor was moderator Martin Talbot going to cut the quarry any slack - Music Week, which he edits, has for months campaigned to extend the term.

The only agreement was the size of the discrepancy between copyright terms for songwriters and for recordings owners in the UK. Right now, songwriters retain copyright for 70 years-plus-life - recordings copyright ceases after 50 years.

Brown, who said he didn't earn a penny in royalties, asked why there was any limit at all?

"If I build a house I don't expect to have to hand it over," he said. Stopps explained that when the 50 year period was introduced in 1911, the average life expectancy was 50 years and 8 months; now it was 78 years. The only reason for the discrepancy was that songwriters had had "a hundred years' start" on sound recording owners.

Ferguson didn't dispute the estimates of economic Armageddon that term extenders propose - which may be £143m over 10 years, according to PriceWaterhouseCooper - and didn't advocate economic gains of out-of-copyright recordings. Which is a pity. The case for sampling wasn't made at all.

Ted Carroll of Ace Records, renowned for its blues, R&B and soul reissues, said many out-of-copyright reissues were the work of pirates and unscrupulous operators.

"A lot of people who go into this do so in the misguided belief it's going to value the public," said Carroll. "But anything that's 'locked in the vaults' isn't going to come out. Only stuff that's already been issued is going to be reissued; and there's a lot of this exploitation of old recordings going on.

"The trouble is a lot of it's crapola - it sounds like shit and the public isn't getting a deal."

The myth that once a work drops into the public domain it enters some utopian, self-tending garden of Eden is pretty widespread with technology enthusiasts, who tend to overlook the quality of what's available (as they do with most "open" projects).

Carroll said while Ace's reissued were properly mastered, and often included a booklet, the crapola merchants made copies of Ace's CDs, and then put the signal through an analog channel "to disguise the fact that it's come from us".

Ferguson replied that copyright law isn't a quality control enforcement mechanism and that isn't what it was designed to be.

Instead, she chose the weakest possible ground, claiming there was nothing to stop Cliff Richard "putting out recordings of Puppet On A String after the term expired". This wasn't a good argument - and not just because Sandie Shaw sang Puppet On A String, not Cliff - and it received the full hairdryer treatment.

If Cliff was to release his own recordings he'd presumably do so in order to earn a royalty rate, so the product would automatically be more expensive than a direct equivalent from Tesco, which didn't need to.

It was noted that in cases after a recording had fallen out of copyright, EMI France simply carried on selling the same product as before at the same price - with no deterioration in sales. Only it wasn't paying any royalties.

Stopps said he favoured a system similar to the US, where the copyright reverted to the performer after 25 years - and the owner could then re-license it, creating a potential bidding war.

"This would regenerate the music industry," he said. "It was the best thing that could possibly happen."

Parliament looks set to recommend a term extension to Europe - it has the backing of MPs on both sides of the house, and, it appears, no credible opposition. There may be one: we just didn't hear it today. ®

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