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Do not enclose the cultural commons

20 апреля 2009

The European parliament will this  week consider a proposal by the European Commission to extend copyright for performers and producers of recorded music to 95 years from the current 50.

Charlie McCreevy, the commissioner in charge, says the extension will help vulnerable ageing performers and promote the cultivation of new artists. It will do neither; this disgraceful proposal only grants the music industry even more power over the already distorted market. The parliament must vote it down.

Copyright is an act of force: it is the means by which states forcibly establish artificial monopolies in cultural works. There are two arguments why governments can legitimately do this. The first is to ensure efficient incentives for cultural production. The second is to ensure that artists get a fair reward for their contribution to our culture’s enrichment. In the absence of copyright, the ease with which cultural works can be reproduced may leave creators with neither efficient incentives nor fair rewards.

But neither consideration justifies extension of copyright beyond the current 50 years. If anything, copyright terms are currently too long.

Anyone acquainted with human creativity knows that most artistic work worth having springs not from the expectation of lengthy royalty streams but from the intrinsic motivation to create. Artistic production is simply something humans do: it pervades history, copyright protection or not. Dave Rowntree, drummer with Blur and The Ailerons, put it succinctly to the 2006 Gowers Review on intellectual property in the UK. The review, which was written by a former FT editor and opposed extension, quotes him as saying: “I have never heard of a single one [band] deciding not to record a song because it will fall out of copyright in ‘only’ 50 years. The idea is laughable.” Quite so.

Even more laughable is Mr McCreevy’s tear-dripping depiction of artists “at the most vulnerable period of their lives” losing income from recordings they did in the 1960s. By the commissioner’s own admission, most revenues accrue to a few “superstars” – and of course producers. It is therefore the likes of Sir Cliff Richard and EMI who stand to benefit the most from an extension. (Besides, reduced income at retirement is hardly unique to musicians; one wonders why their predicament is specially worrisome.)

This is not to deny that many artists benefit too little from their work. The solution is not to indulge production companies more, but to shift power from them to artists and performers.

Copyright extension is, in the main, just the well-known strategy of powerful companies: profit-grabbing through lobbying for state protection. That is bad enough. Worse is the chilling effect it can have on creativity: the industry is already on a legal crusade against the sampling of copyrighted material into new original work. This is like the Grimm brothers’ descendants suing Disney for using their fairy tales.

The cultural industries are over-protected.
If cultural works were less greedily hoarded, consumers would enjoy more variety – and artists would create more freely.

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