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Music copyright extension - strings attached

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Culture Minister Andy Burnham gave clear backing to extending the copyright term for sound recordings yesterday - but called on the music business to make sure it benefits musicians, not industry fatcats.

"We want the industry to come back with good, workable ideas as to how a proposal on copyright extension might be framed that directly and predominantly benefits performers – both session and featured musicians," Burnham said.

Currently, revenue from sound recordings goes two ways - to the musicians who performed on the recording (Europe proposes to extend this to producers, too), and to the owner of the recording. Burnham clearly supports the former, but conspicuously made no mention of the latter.

"There is a moral case for performers benefiting from their work throughout their entire lifetime", he declared.

But Burnham failed to give any mention of the economic case that extending the term for sound recordings is needed - and that investment will suffer if the term isn't extended.

Opponents argued that if a sound recording owner couldn't extract economic value in 50 years, there was no point in extending it even longer. Politically, that argument appears to have won the day.

"While there are still some further discussions which need to take place, we fully support any proposal on term extension that benefits the full spectrum of our business - from session musicians and featured artists to those labels, music companies and individuals who invest in their careers," UK Music said in a statement.

Speaking at the UK Music's Creators' Conference, the European Commissioner Charlie McCreevy had more caveats for the music business - as well as a word for the well-heeled academic critics of copyright.

"Opponents to the extension argue that an additional annual income of around €2,000 per year for session players is not 'significant enough' to allow performers to participate fairly in the millions that the proposal would provide for record companies," he observed. "Well, to that criticism can I say that the average annual pay-out might not appear significant to academic critics, but €2,000 extra per year is significant for an average session player."

Who on earth could he mean?

The EC has proposed a "use it or lose it" clause for copyright, where the ownership of forgotten recordings reverts to the performer, and wants session musicians to benefit from sales revenues with the creation of a new fund guaranteeing them a proportion of receipts.

However, McCreevy warned that the music business needed to stop bickering, and should not assume a term extension could be taken for granted:

"Here is my warning: the proposal's chances for rapid adoption in first reading will not be enhanced if the two major beneficiaries, performers and record producers, are caught counting their chickens before they have hatched."

Burnham echoed the call yesterday:

"We want the industry to come back with good, workable ideas as to how a proposal on copyright extension might be framed that directly and predominantly benefits performers – both session and featured musicians."

With the copyright term now set at 90 years (United States), and 70 or 75 in many other non-EU countries, a European extension now looks certain.

But will the proceeds go to bailing out debt-laden record companies like EMI, or reward the performers who created the recordings in the first place? That's surely a question too important to be left to the music business itself. ®

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