Inbox: Copyright Storm

The full range of views currently being aired on the state of copyright and illegal downloading was starkly illustrated in the responses of Mike Hanrahan and Scott McLaughlin to my article (Aug–Sept). Mike Hanrahan’s letter was strongly critical...

The full range of views currently being aired on the state of copyright and illegal downloading was starkly illustrated in the responses of Mike Hanrahan and Scott McLaughlin to my article (Aug–Sept). Mike Hanrahan’s letter was strongly critical of the inaction on the part of the music industry in finding a solution to the situation, whereas Scott McLaughlin saw this as a ‘time to fight for weaker copyright’.

While I am in agreement with much of Mike Hanrahan’s standpoint, I do not agree that it is too late to act. However, if Scott McLauglin’s analysis holds sway, then composers may have to consider engaging in other occupations in order to support their compositional work.

At the root of Mr McLauglin’s analysis of the situation is a basic misconception of what copyright is. He asserts that, ‘It is a government granted monopoly that gives the rightsholder (sometimes this is also the creator, but most likely it’s a record company or publisher) certain rights over distribution, publication and adaptation for a limited period of time, before the work enters the public domain and becomes a part of the commons, usable by anyone.’ This, however, is not what copyright is.

Copyright is granted to the creator of a work by the law of the land – by statute. It is granted not to any record company or publisher, but to the original creator of the work, who then has the right to assign it, or not, to any body they wish for as long or as short a time as they wish. This is why it is the original creators who must make the fight to protect it. Without their original work, then the modes of dissemination, broadcast and publication have no raw materials with which to ply their trade. To expect composers to become entrepreneurs, merchandisers and salesmen who, Mr McLaughlin suggests, ‘find new ways of connecting with fans and giving them reason to buy’, is to dilute their attention to the work in hand at the expense, I would suggest, of creative innovation.

I am constantly dismayed at how much confusion surrounds the discourse on this subject – even among professionals – so if I may, I would like to set out a few clarifications.

1. It bears repeating, so let me say once again that copyright belongs to the creator of the work first and foremost, who is then free to enter into any contractual arrangements with third parties as they wish, for some or all of their works, for as long or as short a period as they decide.

2. This right is not to be confused with the rights of performers of the work – be they the creators themselves or other artists who elect to perform the work of the original creator. This confusion often appears in debates about artists’ and session musicians’ rights. While similar legal principles stand behind these, it is important for composers to understand that while they might also have a right to participate in these streams of income, they are separate.

3. Composers’ rights must not be confused with the rights attached to physical recordings. Scott McLauglin refers to the Gower Report in the UK and its recommendations. There was justifiable outcry against record companies for their exploitation of works by artists and who, as formats changed from vinyl, to tape, to CD, to digital download, earned again and again without any further investment in creativity. I have full sympathy with this point of view, but it in no way impinged on my belief that composers’ rights must stand firm.

4.  The arguments for and against the extension of the period of copyright should in no way confuse and dilute the argument for the fundamental right itself. It is open to discussion and legislation as to how long after a composer’s death copyright sustains. However, we must remember that it is an intellectual property and should remain in the ownership of the rights holder to sell, lease, or license just like any other property.  Subsequently, once a work enters the ‘public domain’ then it is the public’s right to have free access to that work.

There is no doubt that downloading and copying via the internet, the extensive use of sampling by hip-hop artists and other innovations will continue to present challenges to copyright holders, administrators and music users alike. Our collective response should not become so overwhelmed as to throw out or weaken a vital economic and moral connection between the writer and their work. I do not deny the right of any person to give away their music for free, should they so wish. What I am concerned about is that in the enthusiasm for freely available music over a new medium, a fundamental right is disappearing.

As a composer I am as excited by the creative possibilities that accompany the emerging technology as anyone else. I make regular and hungry use of it all (while respecting the rights of my fellow musicians). I am still very happy, as Scott McLaughlin says, if my music is ‘out there and part of the conversation’. However, I do remember the first royalty cheque I ever received, and far from stifling my creativity, it allowed me to continue and encouraged me in what I was doing. The right that brought that cheque in the letterbox is called ‘copyright’. Arguing for weaker copyright makes no sense whatsoever.

Bill Whelan

Published on 1 December 2009

Sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter to receive our latest news, UK newsreviews, articles, jobs and events.

To add a listing see here. For advertising visit this link.