EU to help music companies keep Elvis, Beatles royalties

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Artists and consumer groups are up in arms as the EU comes closer to agreeing a 20-year extension of copyright on music recorded before the 1960s. Critics argue that while record companies keep their profits high, artists will lose out.

Record companies have managed to reap high profits thanks to the back catalogues of many popular artists. To perpetuate their gain, they have been lobbying the EU to prevent the copyright of golden oldies from running out.

It seems their efforts are paying off as the EU is close to agreeing an extension of music copyright from 50 to 70 years following a first recording, a measure that is angering consumers and artists alike.

"As far as we are concerned this has nothing to do with the protection of authors, but this is about money for big companies and a longer return on investment," Kelvin Smits from Younison, the EU's first pressure group of musicians, told EURACTIV.

Smits argued the term extension was about making sure recording companies could still make money from early high value works like Elvis Presley and The Beatles, whose copyright is approaching expiry.

Smits, who is a former Belgian musician, said this would do little for upcoming artists, many of whom create mash-ups, essentially a brand new piece of music using vocals and music from different artists, because they would have to continue paying for works that were about to become free.

Music publishers and collecting societies, on the other hand, support the measure as a way of remunerating artists and harmonising rules across the bloc.

Extending copyrights to 95 years?

In 2008, the European Commission proposed an extension of the copyright term to 95 years, which has since been whittled down to 70 by the Council and a small dissenting minority in the European Parliament.

The International Confederation of Music Publishers supports the Commission proposal because it would iron out discrepancies across the bloc on works that are jointly written by different authors, but the organisation made no comment on the 20-year extension.

The EU spokesperson for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, Daniel Friedlander, was not available for comment. The Belgian Entertainment Association (BEA) refused to comment.

EU consumer advocacy group BEUC spoke out against the extension, saying it would pass on costs to the music buyer and to artists using samples to make music.

The group added that this would also send a chill down the spine of new business models because it props up current monopolies and removes any incentive to invest in new licensing models.

"Even though this is a way to ensure a longer period of return for rightsholders, currently there is an array of more important things to tackle to ensure that creatives and not companies get a fair income from their work," Smits explained, saying he had to re-record his first album with an orchestra to avoid paying 2.5 million euros in royalties.

"For instance, [we need] a fair and transparent way of redistributing collective rights in their name," he added.

Story so far

In the EU, a strong majority has been building in favour of the 20-year extension but some interesting obstacles, borne out of the euro crisis, are delaying a final decision.

Though Portugal appears to be in favour of the extension, its government has capitulated under a political and economic crisis with elections looming in early June.

The previously staunch blocking majority to the extension is faltering, with Denmark and Finland being won over by arguments on prolonging the term.

The UK's eagerness to extend the term comes from the fact that some of its most proud musical moments, like the Beatles song 'Love me do', are about to run out of copyright.

Though Belgium, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Sweden, Romania and Austria still oppose the measure, the EU could still guarantee a qualified majority needed to clinch an agreement.

Music copyright should enter the public domain 50 years after a recording was originally made. In 2008 the European Commission adopted a proposal to extend copyright terms to 95 years.

In 2009 significant moves were made at a European level when former EU Commissioner Charlie McCreevy and the European Parliament began backing an extension to 70 years.

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