European Parliament backs 70-year copyright term for sound recordings

The European Parliament has voted to extend the length of time that copyright protects sound recordings by 20 years. The compromise position backed by MEPs needs the approval of European Union member states to come into force.

The European Commission has long lobbied for copyright term extension from 50 years to 95 years. A report by Irish MEP Brian Crowley has suggested an extension to 70 years of protection.

That report was adopted at first reading by MEPs, who voted by 377 votes to 178 to back the proposal. It must now be approved by the Council of Ministers, but some countries are known to be hostile to any extension.

Crowley said that the reduced term extension contained in his proposed legislation was a recognition of the fact that some of the 27 EU member states did not approve of extension.

The legislation proposes that performers retain the right to be paid for 70 years after the release of a recording. Some of that money will go to the producers of recordings, since session players sign over their rights in exchange for a one-off playing fee.

Producers will have to set aside 20% of the income generated by the extra 20-year period of protection. This will be placed in a fund for session musicians which will be administered by music collecting societies.

The new law also includes a 'use it or lose it' clause by which players can regain control of recordings if they are not released to the public by producers. Once the initial 50 year term has expired, if producers are not still releasing work to the public the performers can complain.

If producers have not released it within a year of that complaint then they will lose their right to earn royalties from performances on the material.

The proposed changes relate to performances on recordings and not to the writing of the material. Writing royalties last for 70 years after the author or composer's death.

The Commission's 95 year proposal was a response to lobbying from the music industry and from artists led by Cliff Richard who argued that musicians should have the right to earn from old recordings until they die. The ending of the 50-year term on early rock and roll recordings brought the problem into focus.

The Commission's actions were sharply criticised, though, by an academic who had been commissioned by the body to investigate the effects of term extension. Director of the University of Amsterdam's Institute for Information Law (IViR) Professor Bernt Hugenholtz said that two studies the IViR carried out for the Commission were ignored.

Hugenholtz wrote an open letter to the Commission accusing it of "wilfully ignoring scientific analysis and evidence" in its policy making.

Hugenholtz said that industry-produced evidence and studies by interested parties were referenced by the Commission in its explanation of its policy decisions, but that its independent work was ignored.

"The Commission's obscuration of the IViR studies and its failure to confront the critical arguments made therein seem to reveal an intention to mislead the Council and the Parliament, as well as the citizens of the European Union," he said in the letter.

The Gowers Review of Intellectual Property, carried out at the Government's request in 2006, recommended that the term of copyright protection for sound recordings remain unchanged at 50 years.