Good for aging rockers, bad for the rest of us

That pretty much sums up the situation regarding a proposal in the European Union to extend copyright protection in sound recordings from 50 years to 95 years.  There are two important lessons to learn here — one specific and one general.

To start with some background information, we note that in the EU, as in most of the rest of the world, sound recordings are treated somewhat differently than materials under copyright.  The rights in sound recordings as well as several other classes of stuff, are called “neighboring rights,” and have traditionally carried less protection than copyrights per se.  This is not true in the US, where musical recordings are dealt with in the copyright act and receive the same term of protection — life of the author plus 70 years — as does other subject matter.  In the EU, the copyright term is the same as that in the US, but sound recordings have had a shorter (but hardly short) term — 50 years.  Now there is a proposal to almost double that term for sound recordings to 95 years.

This proposal has just been approved by the legal affairs committee of the European Parliament, and now goes for a vote to the full body.  This in spite of several studies that have shown the economic harm of extending copyright this much.  Every expert group that has studied the issue has advised against the move, but the pressure of industry lobbying seems to be more than the Members of the European Parliament can bear.  There are stories about the recent moves here and here (from very different perspectives).

Most interesting, perhaps, is this letter from Bernt Hugenhotz, one of Europe’s leading copyright experts, pointing out that this action is proceeding in the face of all the evidence suggesting it is a bad idea.

Finally, this blog post from last month includes a nice little video that offers a simple explanation, aimed at MEPs, about the economics of copyright extension.  The point, of course, is that nearly everyone loses when copyright terms are extended beyond the reasonable, and very short, time necessary to provide a meaningful incentive to create.

So what are the lessons we can take away from this controversy?  First, that the economics of copyright extension actually favors shorter terms, even as industry pressures for longer ones.  And more generally, this affair emphasizes the point made by Prof. James Boyle in his new book  The Public Domain about the great need for basing copyright decisions on actual data rather than mere assertion and self-interest.  It would be nice to believe that legislators approached every issue with a eye on data and evidence, but the history of copyright regulation does not bear that out.