25 July 2007

The End of the Copyright Ratchet/Racket?

Will this response from the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport go down in history as the great turning point for copyright, when the constant extension ratchet was halted and eventually reversed?

Maybe I'm an incurably optimist, but I have to say I was pretty impressed by the generally sane tone of this document after years of industry-driven exaggeration about "piracy" and such-like. The best demonstration of this comes right at the end, where the earlier proposal by the House of Commons Culture Committee to extend the term of copyright in sound recordings is discussed. Here's what the report has to say:

The Government appreciates the work of the Committee and the deliberation it has given to this subject. As the Committee noted,the independent Gowers Review also considered this issue in detail and recommended that the European Commission retain a term of protection for sound recordings and performers of 50 years. The Review undertook a detailed analysis of all the arguments put forward,including the moral arguments regarding the treatment of performers. It concluded that an extension would not benefit the majority of performers,most of whom have contractual relationships requiring their royalties be paid back to the record label. It also concluded that an extension would have a negative impact on the balance of trade and that it would not increase incentives to create new works.Furthermore,it considered not just the impact on the music industry but on the economy as a whole,and concluded that an extension would lead to increased costs to industry,such as those who use music – whether to provide ambience in a shop or restaurant or for TV or radio broadcasting – and to consumers who would have to pay royalties for longer. In reaching such conclusions,the Review took account of the question of parity with other countries such as the US,and concluded that,although royalties were payable for longer there,the total amount was likely to be similar – or possibly less – as there were fewer revenue streams available under the US system.

This is doubly important, because it will have important knock-on effects beyond the UK. As Becky Hogge of the Open Rights Groups rightly points out:

This is significant, since the UK government is likely to have a disproportionately loud voice on this issue both because it is home to the most lucrative recording industry in Europe and because it has taken the time to review this issue in detail.

So we have the prospect of Europe following the UK's lead in halting the constant copyright extension. This, in its turn, will help to put a brake on such copyright extensions around the world, since there will no longer be the argument that "eveyone else is doing it, we must follow suit". Maybe it's too much to hope that in due course copyright terms will start to be reduced - but then, as I said, I'm an incurable optimist.

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