Monday, August 29, 2011

Copyrights from 1978

For anyone interested in music, this might be of interest.  In 1978, they passed a law that any artist who designated their copyright to another entity can claim it back after 35 years.  So 2012 is the first year that this would take effect.  Someone who did a work for hire (writing software for Microsoft) isn’t covered by this, it mostly musicians who sold their copyrights to record labels in return for production, marketing, and distribution.  The singer/band or their estate can file the paperwork and get the copyright back from the record label.  All the songs that were released in 1978 are eligible.  This is pretty much 99% of the relevant cases. 

But of course, the record labels are fighting it, claiming that these count also as works for hire.  Here are the arguments I find interesting:
  • First is the legal definition of work for hire.  There are nuances that I think favor the musicians, but it requires going through the specific wording in the definitions written into the law with a fine tooth comb.  That is what the lawyers get paid for.
  • Second are the logistical issues.  If this were to also include the backup singers, sound engineers, etc., it would be unworkable.  Anyone wanted to play a song on the radio or use it in a movie would have to get permission from every single person involved in the song.   This is called a copyright thicket.  But the experts think it would just be the singer/band and the courts would not include the others.  This is probably a jury decision though.
  • Third is the economic implications.  Back in 1978, musicians needed the record labels to get noticed.  There was a lot of equipment needed to produce a song and legwork needed to market it.  But nowadays, bands can pretty much do this on their own.  High quality recording equipment is reasonable cost and marketing can be done on the Internet.  So is there a need for the record labels any more?  This may be one of the last nails in that industries coffin.
  • Another economic issue is how much is actually at stake.  How much money are labels making on 35 year old songs?  I don’t really have a clue.  I guess there are enough oldies stations that it is worth a try for them to appeal the law.
  • Finally, is the philosophic argument.  There is something that speaks to me about setting a time limit on copyright assignments.  I understand that the record labels were critical to get the bands started in 1978.  But I can imagine how good I would feel if, after 35 years, a song I made famous was finally in my own hands again. 
 For a good discussion, check out last weekends’ On the Media show.