Screw the evidence, says Burnham, let’s extend copyright term anyway think about extending term, maybe, perhaps…

Update (15/12/08): The Department of Culture Media and Sport have now released the full text of Burnham’s speech last Thursday, and it appears the report we referenced in Music Week was misleading. It is in fact far from clear whether the Government have U-turned on their policy not to support term extension, or whether this is just Burnham going out on a limb. Was he, as Andrew Gowers suggested in the Financial Times this weekend, merely star-struck? From the speech:

“There is a moral case for performers benefiting from their work throughout their entire lifetime.

“That is why I have been working with John Denham, my opposite number in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, to consider the arguments for an extension of copyright term for performers from the current 50 years. An extension to match more closely a performer’s expected lifetime, perhaps something like 70 years, for example, given that most people make their best work in their 20s and 30s.

“And we must ensure that any extension delivers maximum benefit to performers and musicians. That’s the test of any model as we go forward.”

He goes on to say

“Let me be absolutely clear so there are no misconceptions about where the Government is on this. I have been working closely with John Denham, and we both share a real support for artists and musicians.

“We want the industry to come back with good, workable ideas as to how a proposal on copyright extension might be framed that directly and predominantly benefits performers – both session and featured musicians.”

Read the full text of the speech here.

UK Culture Secretary Andy Burnham today indicated that he would support an extension of the length of copyright protection granted to sound recordings from 50 years to 70 years.

The announcement directly contradicts previous Government policy on term extension, and could disappoint many UK citizens hoping the UK will reject proposals currently being discussed at EU level to extend the copyright term. Back in 2006, the independent Gowers Review of Intellectual Property recommended against term extension. The review commissioned significant independent research [.pdf] which found that extending term would have a negative effect on consumers, and scant benefits for the majority of performers. Making the announcement today, Burnham indicated that he was prepared to ignore the facts in favour of what he called a “moral case”.

But the U-turn can probably be more accurately ascribed to the intense lobbying activities of record labels and collecting societies – the bodies likely to see the most benefit from extending term – ever since Gordon Brown accepted Gowers’ recommendations in full.

The EU proposals recommend an extension of term to 95 years, so it’s possible that the UK will still not support the Directive as it stands. If Burnham is sincere in his intention that the term extension should benefit performers he’ll also need to iron out several other problems with the Directive [.pdf]:

  • The majority of performers could gain as little as 50 cents per year from sales related to the proposed extension, set against as much as €4m going to each major record label
  • The Directive threatens to actually decrease the amount performers receive in airplay royalties in their lifetime, as payments are transferred from artists at the beginning of their careers to the estates of dead performers
  • The proposal to set up a fund for session musicians (who otherwise would not benefit from the term extension at all, because of the contracts they originally signed with record labels) is low on detail. There’s a real risk that the small amount record labels are compelled to set aside for this fund will be swallowed by admin costs before it gets to musicians.

If it turns out the UK Government are unwilling to reject the Directive, then it will be up to the European Parliament to see sense and vote it out when they come to consider it (likely next February). Which means it’s all the more important to write to your MEP if you object to the proposal to extend copyright term.