Friday, December 08, 2006 

Unmistakable greed.

Yes, this post does provide an excuse to put a photograph of Melua up.

Somewhat buried beneath the less than thrilling contents of the pre-budget report was the release of the
Gowers report into intellectual property copyright. As you might expect, the majority of it (PDF) is so dry that if you put a match to it it'd probably take your face off with it, but in there are a few proposals which should have been implemented years ago, and at least one which has caused the bloated music companies and a few artists to rise up in the biggest fury since Bono had his hat stolen.

The law will be amended so that consumers can legitimately transfer music for their own use, for example from a CD they have bought to an MP3 player. The review also proposes exemptions to allow individuals to sample copyrighted work to create something new and that the law be liberalised and updated to take into account digital archiving and preservation by libraries and academic institutions.

Finally. Ever since the days of the industry claiming that "home-taping was killing music" it's been technically illegal in Britain to make a copy for personal use of a copyrighted product which you've bought, i.e. either a DVD or a CD. As iPods and their cousins have become ubiquitous, this is potentially criminalising around half of the population, as Gowers mentions in the report. Uncontroversial, right? Everyone does it, hardly anyone's rightly ever been prosecuted for doing so, makes sense. Well, to all but to those who claim to represent the artists in question, of course:

AIM, a trade body representing 900 independent labels, said: "We believe Gowers may well be opening the floodgates to uncontrolled and unstoppable private copying and sharing from person to person."

AIM then seems to be suggesting that buying a CD shouldn't give you the right to then copy the data from that CD onto another device for the express purpose of personally listening to it. AIM's solution seems to be that if you want to listen to the music from the CD you've just bought on your iPod or digital music player, you should buy it again from one of the wonderful online vendors of popular music, such as iTunes or Napster, both of which supply that music in horrendous quality, crippled with digital rights management protection, that means you can only play it using their software and hardware, unless you then decide to break another law which means that you can't remove the copy protection from those files whether you want to or not (The UK author of DVD Decrypter, until last year the best available DVD ripping program, was forced to stop updating after being threatened with legal action from Macrovision.). Not only would this double the price of a piece of music, it removes the ability to do what you want with something you have personally purchased, such as create an uncrippled copy at near lossless quality from the original.

There are a few sites which offer music without DRM and at decent quality, such as, but they tend to only offer a selection of artists, with nowhere near the choice available on places such as iTunes. Other sites with dubious legality, such as the Russian, which combines low prices with giving the user the choice of quality and format, are being threatened with lawsuits and closure. AIM's stance is nothing but sheer greed, pure and simple.

The record companies however realise they're fighting a losing battle over personal copying. Better to save their fire for other, slightly more contentious disputes, as we shall come to. Besides, Gowers has lined the report nicely, by giving in to demands for the potential punishment of pirates to be brought into line with the ridiculous American laws, which currently provide for repeat offenders to be imprisoned for up to 10 years and fined up to $1 million. Gowers proposes that 10 years be a possible punishment here too. Everyone agrees that the shady guy on eBay selling second-hand or new DVDs that turn out to be bad copies is a total shit, but a potential 10 year jail sentence for doing so is out of all proportion to the crime. This would affect the people who you know full well are selling copies as well, such as a Chinese guy who goes round all the shops near where I live and announces himself by walking in and saying "DEE VEE DEE?" "DEE VEE DEE?". You know what they sell, he knows what he's selling, and while it may not be a victimless crime, he isn't begging and he isn't robbing you at knife point either. The Gowers report additionally recommends a beefing up of Trading Standards, giving them the power to take the battle to copyright infringers, rather than it having to be reported to them first.

What's really got the industry and some artists riled up is the reports' recommendation that copyright protection should not be extended further than the current 50 years for which it applies. The devil here though is in the detail. 50 years applies to those who make the creative content, i.e. those who play the music. 70 years protection is given to those who actually wrote the song. This is why the music companies themselves are so opposed, as it means their income from the selling/playing of the recording will be taken away, whilst the actual writer will continue to be paid for another 20 years. Additionally, the "less talented" artists, i.e. those who just played while the others wrote, will be stripped of their assets.

It's of little surprise then that artists such as Cliff Richard and Katie Melua have signed an advertisement in the Financial Times opposing Gowers' recommendation. Some of Richard's early material will become public domain within two years, and as he didn't have a role in writing a decent proportion of it, he's going to be shortly out of pocket. As for Melua, it's well known that the vast majority of her insipid material is written by Mike Batt, notorious for getting his start in the music industry by providing the Wombles with their musical accompaniment. The album sleeve from her debut, Call off the Search (I, err, have a copy because of the free bonus DVD, owing to the fact I'm a sad sack of shit and rather fancy her) credits her with writing a whopping two songs on the entire thing, meaning that if things stay as they are by the time she's 72, she'll have lost pretty much all of any money still coming in. Paul McCartney and U2 are also signatories, both of whom despite earning and being worth millions, continue to launch lawsuits against various individuals/companies, in search of recompense for laughable "crimes" or for yet more royalties.

The industry and artists' proposal is that copyright be extended to 95 years. They therefore not only want to still be being paid for what they may have done at the age of 20, which could be no more than pluck a guitar string on a song which unaccountably becomes a huge hit for the length of their lives, they want their offspring to be able to profit from it as well, as the Guardian rightly argues. As a commenter on CiF from Revolver Records makes abundantly clear, this is less to do with any of the debates about what something that makes up a part of our collective culture is worth and for how long it should be worth something, than with competing with the Americans.

As with everything else in America, corporatism looms large. The appropriately nicknamed Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act or, if you prefer, the Mickey Mouse Protection Act from 1998 extended this to a whopping life plus 70 years for the author, and 95 years for everyone else involved. Disney was heavily involved in the lobbying, as you might expect, as was the MPAA and the ever litigious RIAA. Our equivalent of the RIAA, the British Phonographic Industry (not pornographic, note), is demanding that we also adopt 95 years. They recently commissioned a poll by those incorruptible people at YouGov, which amazingly found that 62% supported equal time as the American system gives. The BPI presented this as "British consumers demand fair play on copyright for British musicians".

Or rather, that the European Commission adopts 95 years, as the decision is down to them. Gowers was simply advising the government to support the status quo. In addition to the American argument, the BPI also relies on the dubious fall back that continuing the status quo would "damage the ability of the music industry to invest in new music and promote old recordings", which translated means that they wouldn't be able to continue to profit from getting shit new "bands" to record new versions of old classics, as they weren't involved in the writing of the song, and that they wouldn't be able to keep re-releasing Abba and Queen best of albums until the end of time, as they'd become public domain sooner or later.

In short then, capitalism continues to flourish only when you can rely on the works of others to keep the money pouring in. To hell with collective culture and not exploiting the same old stuff other and other again, money really does make the world go round.

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