EU parliament to debate copyright term extension this week

To high-ranking European Commissioners, it's a matter of whether a major European industry should be given the same tools for success the US currently has. For academia, it's a debate over whether copyright benefits or hurts artists.

Almost a decade ago, the US Congress passed a copyright term extension act named for the late, popular congressman, and one-time musical superstar, Sonny Bono. It extended the term of copyright in this country to 70 years beyond the life of the author, or 95 years for anonymous works -- essentially, pieces of art copyrighted by a rights management firm or agency rather than a person.

The huge majority of copyrighted works fall into that latter category. Because European copyright is currently not as strong, the foundation of the intellectual property industry in America is perceived to be stronger, especially by the Europeans. Today, a proposal from a popular EU commissioner -- maybe not Sonny Bono, but certainly a familiar fixture on national newscasts lately -- will be debated by the European Commission, according to US trade weekly reports citing sources in Brussels.

The objective of Commissioner Charlie McCreevy's proposal is to extend the basic term of copyright throughout Europe to 95 years, putting the continent's copyright law on a par with the US.

Think of it like a vote to instantly, automatically extend the power and influence of a country's major industry -- like a vote in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to wave a wand and restore its steel mills -- and you'll get a feeling of what opposition to this measure must look like to a European commissioner.

But the opposition presses on nonetheless, led in recent days by the Director of Great Britain's Centre for Intellectual Property Policy and Management, Bournemouth Professor Martin Kretschmer.

In a letter to the President of the EC last month (PDF available here), Prof. Kretschmer wrote, "This Copyright Extension Directive, proposed by Commissioner McCreevy, is likely to damage seriously the reputation of the Commission. It is a spectacular kowtow to one single special interest group: the multinational recording industry (Universal, Sony BMG, Warner, and EMI) , hiding behind the rhetoric of 'aging performing artists."'

In an effort to show support for recording artists and musicians as opposed to the recording industry, Comm. McCreevy's proposal states that copyright holder agencies who fail to register their extension of copyright beyond the current 50 year cap, will see their rights forfeited to the original musicians.

But in an examination of potential impact of copyright law extension attached to his letter, Kretschmer's team wrote, "We find that artists' earnings are primarily a matter of contract, not copyright. Advances and royalties for record sales depend on the terms of the recording contract. Empirical studies consistently show that only a small percentage of artists are able to control their contracts. According to collecting society statistics, the top ten percent of artists account for between 80 and 90 percent of total earnings.

"We have seen no evidence that living artists as a whole would benefit decisively from an extension of exclusive rights held by record companies," reads another section of the examination. "The benefits will fall to those who need it least: already wealthy performers, and their estates and record companies. In fact, in as much as innovative musicians are users of existing recordings, their artistry will be hindered, not enabled, by extension."

There are some commissioners who back the statements of Prof. Kretschmer and others, though it will be interesting to see how prominently these individuals play in the upcoming floor debate.

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