Friday, 24 April 2015

Stabbed in the Back Catalog: 14 Year Copyright Explained

A certain political party in a country not a long way from where I live recently got in trouble with writers and artists for a policy statement that appears to suggest that copyright should be limited to 14 years. Now some people in that party are trying to interpret the policy as 14 years after the artist's death, but the interesting thing is that there is a piece of research backing this up.

The research here was based on statistics from the USA, back in the day when copyright needed to be regularly renewed. That, boys and girls, was a long time ago: the data is from the 1950s. That is, the data is over sixty years old. Things have changed a little in the publishing industry since 1952.

There are many changes that have affected publishing since then: I learned to type on a manual typewriter in the 1970s but, today, I am typing this on an 8-core laptop computer more powerful than the most powerful on Planet Earth in 1976. The printing processes of the 1950s bore more resemblance to those of Gutenberg than they do to the processes available today. And this dominated the way that authors made money.

In the 1950s -- in fact, right through the second half of the 20th Century -- the only significant way to sell books or music was in bookshops and record stores. That meant that the book or song was taken by a publisher, thousands of copies were printed, and they were kept on the shelves of bookshops or record stores for a few months. Any that didn't sell were destroyed. The ones that did sell were considered to earn royalties, which were paid to an author after the six month period was over, or taken from the money they were loaned (the advance) when the publisher took on the book. Except for a very few titles, this was the complete market life of a book or record.

To summarise: if a book or record was not a runaway success in a few months, it would be taken off the shelves and would no longer be available. It would be out of print. In 1950, an out-of-print book or album generated just about zero revenue for the artist. This is the reason why a lot of artists didn't bother renewing their copyright. There was no money in it.

Fast forward to 2015. Better yet, think of an obscure book that you enjoyed years ago, and go looking for it on Amazon. Oh look, it's back in print! Do the same thing for that obscure vinyl album from way back then. Same story! Why is that? The reason is partly in the way books and music are published: it is now commercially viable to sell an individual work either in electronic form or, in the case of books, as print-on-demand. But the other part of the reason is even more interesting: changes in retailing allow book and music sellers to hold vastly increased stocks, since the "shelf-space" required for electronic books is fractions of a square millimetre of silicon or magnetised material in a web server somewhere. The practical upshot of this is that, nowadays, copyrighted works can be on sale for decades, not months.

If you wade through the original paper, the flaw is in Section 7.3: The Rate of Cultural Decay. Take a read through that section, even if differential calculus is not your thing, and bear in mind the changes in book and music publication in the last 10 years. Don't worry about your MP3 player or your e-reader: think about how those old books and records that used to be out of print are now available again. Do you see what that does? The measurements that he makes for "cultural decay" before 2005 are now meaningless. Musicians and authors are making real money today by putting their once-worthless back-catalogues on sale.

So now it turns out that one political party on an island not so far away wants to change copyright to fit a possibly worthy analysis of irrelevant history. And, in doing so, they want to take away the pensions of a lot of artists, who have only recently learned how to re-connect with their fans. I can see how this policy came into being. But that doesn't make it right.