The following article reflects the Editors
Sound copyright: under threat yet again?
Every so often the thorny subject of the length
of copyright in sound recordings crops up in Britain. Just
recently a pop group which enjoyed considerable success
from the 1960s onwards has been reported as lobbying the
European Union to force Britain to raise the protection
of copyright on sound recordings from the present 50 to
Copyright in all areas of the arts is a complicated and
often misunderstood matter. And it is far from being a universal
thing: with modern means of spreading knowledge and entertainment
in so many forms worldwide, how on earth is it possible
to ensure that all the billions in all the countries on
our planet abide by the rules?
what rules? There are no rules which appear
to apply everywhere with the same effect. And who is going
to bother to enforce them anyway?
Britain is a soft target. Generally speaking when we sign
up to the latest edicts from on high (otherwise
known as the unelected European Commission) we tend to abide
by them; our neighbours in the EU adopt a far more sensible
attitude they sign up, but only obey what they consider
is beneficial to them.
But I am starting to drift off the point. The important
matter which I wish to bring to your urgent attention is
that there is a real danger that Britain could be forced
to change its sound copyright laws almost by default, unless
we all wake up to the threat and realise what it would mean
to us in practical terms as music lovers.
The case put by the artists who want to raise the sound
copyright limit to 70 years is that they alone should be
able to decide how their older recordings should be made
available on new CDs or other means of sound reproduction.
One can have some sympathy with this view, but this does
raise the valid comment:
■ if their recordings are still of considerable
value, surely they are already being issued by the original
record company that made them, and consequently there would
be little money to be earned by independent companies reissuing
them yet again.
Sound copyright should not be confused with composer royalties.
Many pop groups from the mid-1960s onwards used to record
their own material, and the writers can happily count on
receiving royalties collected by PRS during their lifetimes
and beyond. When the RFS made its own CD in 1997
"Captain Robert Farnon and the Canadian Band
of the AEF" we used recordings that were long
out of sound copyright in Britain, but we still paid over
£230 in royalties to MCPS on the 500 copies we manufactured.
In the USA the term for sound copyright is currently 70
years. It varies in different European countries
sometimes 70 years but even as low as 25 years. What are
the main arguments in favour of leaving the law as it stands
1. We now have several well-respected independent record
companies who have gained international reputations for
the quality of their sound restorations of material over
50 years old.
2. Most of the recordings being restored and reissued
have been ignored for years by the major companies that
first recorded them. Some have even lost them.
3. The new releases are usually attractively packaged
with comprehensive booklet notes. The careers of some artists
have definitely been extended and even rekindled through
the activities of the enthusiasts whose passions have resulted
in the reissues.
4. As a judge in the USA commented a year or two ago,
modern sound restorations do give an added value to old
recordings, making them more attractive than previously.
Such work is for the general benefit of music lovers, and
it should not be stifled.
5. British readers who were young in the 1950s, at a
time when home tape recording started to become affordable,
will remember the dire consequences threatened by the BBC
on anyone they discovered committing the terrible sin of
actually recording their programmes. Today we know how badly
they looked after their precious archives, and they now
plead with these earlier sinners to share their
tapes with the BBC. There is a parallel with the fragile
78s issued during the last century: many collectors are
no longer around to protect their treasured discs, and time
is quickly running out for them to be preserved for posterity.
Extending the sound copyright periods could seriously hamper
such work, and deprive all future generations of valued
examples of our musical heritage.
6. Finally it is a misconception to think that independent
record companies are making a fortune from restoring old
recordings. Although the actual CDs are becoming cheap to
manufacture, the computer equipment to process the 78s or
early LPs is expensive not to mention the cost of
actually locating the discs, paying someone to compile them
and write the notes, print the booklets, etc. Most of the
CDs enjoyed by readers of this magazine probably sell under
1,000 copies: hardly something that politicians should be
wasting their time worrying about.
If the worst happens, and a change in the law is considered
to be desirable, then I hope that it will not be made retrospective,
and that there would be a period of several years before
it came into force. Although I do not advocate it myself,
I can imagine a situation where some people might feel that
the improvements in sound recording which took place at
the time might make it equitable to allow recordings from
1960 onwards to be subject to copyright protection for longer
than 50 years, but to impose this before then would, in
my humble opinion, be a most regrettable and retrograde
One final thought: some countries have a Freedom of Information
Act, and the idea is spreading. Is this just flannel, or
is it intended to mean something substantial? It does appear
that there are many people who regard such liberal trends
with great suspicion, and I submit that the extension of
sound copyright would be a blatant example of going against
the aforementioned aspirations.
I hardly need to state that I have a vested interest in
this important matter, because my aim is to make available
many recordings of light music that have been simply lost
or forgotten by the companies that originally
made them. It just so happens that a lot of these treasures
date from around 50 years ago, and to be prevented access
to them would be a serious loss to music lovers around the
world. For example, the Guild Golden Age of Light
Music series would never have been created.
My own vested interests pale in comparison with the vested
interests of the parties who would like to change the law.
One famous example is The Beatles, whose earliest recordings
date from just after 1960. Probably money could still be
made from attractive repackaging of their material, but
should this be regarded as a strong enough reason to enforce
a blanket ban on all the other recordings from that period
which have been neglected by the record companies?
I would emphasise again that this article represents my
personal view, and it must not be taken as the policy of
the Robert Farnon Society. Nevertheless I strongly believe
that the interests of our members are at risk, and I feel
justified in using our magazine to bring it to your attention.
I hope that some of you will join in this debate and
let me have your own views, which I will be happy to print
in a future magazine. If you disagree with me, please dont
hesitate to say so, and tell me why you think I am wrong
to be concerned. However if you agree with me that this
is a matter which should be of some concern to us all, then
I urge you to make your feelings known to your local MP
and especially your MEP (Member of the European Parliament).
You can also alert the press, both national and local, and
raise the subject if you enjoy taking part in radio talk
I would like to think that our political masters have far
more important problems to deal with at the present time,
but experience has shown that this is just the kind of unfortunate
legislation that can slip through on the nod
by a small group of tired people anxious to dispose of reams
of paperwork without protracted arguments. The case to extend
the period of sound copyright can seem fair to people unaware
of the complete picture. Unless we ensure that a proper,
reasoned debate takes place, we could all lose out on an
area of the record business that is presently giving us
a lot of pleasure.
from Journal Into Melody : September 2004
Sound Copyright : a follow-up to the Editor's article
in the September 2004 issue
My article in our last issue has provoked many comments
from RFS members, most of them along similar lines, saying
… "we hope things stay as they are." Some members have kindly
taken the trouble to expand their concerns more fully, and
a representative selection appears below.
There are continuing press reports of individuals and organisations
asking for the sound copyright period to be extended from
50 to 70 years in Britain, with most of them latching on
to the fact that the earliest Elvis Presley recordings are
now 50 years old. I suspect that these gripes will continue
to rumble on for years, and gain fresh momentum when the
Beatles' records attain their half-century soon after 2010.
The media cannot be relied upon to give objective reporting:
a Channel 4 News report in September failed to grasp the
complexities of the subject.
The future of many Light Music compilations is at stake,
but I am not going to repeat the arguments I put forward
last time: all I would ask is that any readers who did not
see my article in the last Journal Into Melody should try
to read it if this subject is of some concern to them. It
can also be viewed on our website. Now here are some of
the letters that have come in.
from Mike Ellis:
I write to congratulate you on your erudite article concerning
the above. I can only agree wholeheartedly with your remarks.
Indeed, I would go further.
You mention the case put forward by artists who believe
that they alone should be able to decide how their older
recordings should be made available. Cynically, I suspect
this is a ruse on the part of many of them to squeeze as
much cash out of them as possible. The most obvious case
is Steve Lawrence and Edyie Gorme, who own their Columbia
and United Artists masters. They refuse to allow the original
company to reissue their classic albums, but prefer to do
it themselves on their own label. Although, as a purist,
I would rather have the original company produce the reissue,
I could live with this except the fact that this route leads
to excessive prices and limited availability. It is virtually
impossible to purchase these CDs in shops and the cost of
each CD from the few shops that do carry them, or on the
internet, is in excess of £25.00 each! Is this fair on the
many collectors who have supported them over the years?
Most of us are retired and on limited incomes, so this is
a counterproductive move.
Similarly, the recordings of Don Cornell are owned by the
artist's family and, again, they were issued on their own
label and only available at his concerts or from them direct
by mail order, requiring an International Money Order, incurring
considerable additional expense. In both these cases, the
original company would (if allowed) have been able to release
them at mid-price and made them freely available.
In another instance, Tony Bennett has resolutely refused,
for many years, to allow his early albums to be released
on CD because, in his view, they do not gel with his current
image. Only recently has he relented and allowed his first
Columbia album to be transferred to CD. In a recent article,
Sue Raney expressed regret that her first two Capitol albums
had been released on CD, presumably because they do not
(in her opinion) match what she is doing today.
In all these cases, I respect the views of the artists although
I cannot agree with them. If it were left to them, many
superb albums would never have seen the light of day and
we would be the poorer for it.
There is also a related aspect. As many will know, CDs are
more expensive in the UK than elsewhere. Many internet retailers
redress this balance by offering US releases at lower prices
than the UK version. The music industry became very upset
by this and hit out at these retailers with legal threats.
The result of this is that most of these retailers now only
carry UK releases. It is not for me to comment on the allegations
of 'rip-off" Britain, but an unfortunate side effect is
that we no longer have access to those US CDs that have
never had a UK release. My view is that the BPS action should
only relate the CDs where there is a freely available UK
At the end of the day, the major labels are now less and
less interested in releasing their back catalogue, and yet
they make it very difficult for the independent labels to
licence them, requiring quite unrealistic minimum orders.
The fact is that we collectors are getting fewer and fewer
each year and both artists and companies should be looking
for ways to sell that back catalogue before it is too late.
from John Harmer:
The possibility of sound copyright being extended is a worry,
as I am sure that there are many of us who are unable to
have access to recordings from the Chappell library, other
than on new CDs such as the Guild, Vocalion and Living Era
from J.J. Olivier:
I fully agree with the Editor's comments about sound copyright.
I hope that these negative ideas will not materialise. For
me, personally, it would be the saddest of days if I were
to be deprived of the CDs of the most beautiful music that
I now have the privilege to own. I do hope that the people
wanting to change the law will not succeed, and that I will
continue to be able to enjoy the light music reissues.
from Nicholas Briggs:
The article on Sound Copyright makes very interesting, if
disturbing, reading. It is probably best to buy up what
one can now whilst things are still available!
from David Turner:
Just a note to say thanks for the excellent article on Copyright
and PRS etc. You encapsulated a complex subject into 'easy
read'... This type of explanation has been long overdue.
I thoroughly agree with your observations. To deprive lovers
of 'our music' would be unacceptable, especially if the
original companies are not prepared to keep them in the
Shortly after my article in our last issue had been sent
to the printers, I was made aware of a report on the internet
which hopefully indicates that the European Union are not,
at present, likely to bow to pressure from certain sectors
of the music business in Britain. I am repeating relevant
parts of this report below, and feel that further comment
at this stage is unnecessary - except to say that this is
a matter which must continue to demand our attention, in
case an absence of discussion should ever be taken as tacit
agreement to an extension of the present sound copyright
period. The report on the internet begins:
After the European Union had harmonized the copyright term
of its Member States' copyright laws to 70 years post mortem
auctoris, the United States enacted the Sonny Bono Copyright
Term Extension Act in 1998. By this act, the general copyright
term in the U.S. of 50 years p.m.a. was extended to 70 years
p.m.a. as well. One of the main reasons for this extension
was the argument that the U.S. had to catch up with the
EU in order to ensure the competitiveness of the U.S. content
For several kinds of sound recordings, the U.S. now even
provides a copyright term of 95 years from the year of first
publication. By contrast, the EU Copyright Term Directive
only provides a protection of 50 years from the date the
recording is made. It is no surprise that content owners
have recently been pushing the EU to extend its protection
for neighbouring rights such as sound recordings to 95 or
at least 70 years as well. One of the main arguments for
this extension is that the EU now has to catch up with the
U.S. in order to ensure the competitiveness of the European
music and recording industry worldwide (sounds somewhat
A recent document by the European Commission indicates that
the Commission does not intend to participate in this never-ending
race towards longer copyright terms any more. In a staff
working document which dates from July 19, 2004 and reviews
the European acquis communitaire in the field of copyright
law, the staff of the copyright unit of the Commission writes:
"It is feared that an extended term of protection would
only tend to diminish the choice of music on the market
by enforcing the flow of revenues from few best-selling
recordings, while at the same time not providing any real
new incentives for creation of new recordings or motivating
new investment. It has also been pointed out that practically
all developed countries, with the exception of the USA,
apply the term of protection of 50 years. As to the need
to achieve parity between the EU and the USA, it has been
argued that the same term of protection would not result
in equal economic benefits for the right holders in these
two territories. On the contrary, due to a different approach
to which uses of phonograms are remunerated, US right holders
already benefit from a better protection of their recordings
in Europe, and the extension of the term would only aggravate
this divide. [...] it seems that public opinion and political
realities in the EU are such as not to support an extension
in the term of protection. Some would even argue that the
term should be reduced. At this stage, therefore, time does
not appear to be ripe for a change, and developments
in the market should be further monitored and studied."
At least in some cases, the voices of copyright critics
seem to be heard.
David Ades : November 2004