Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

December 2, 2006

Britain To Say No To Copyright Hogs

by Doug Mataconis

In a move that could send shock waves through the music industry, Britain is set to reject demands by the music industry to extend copyright protection on music from 50 years to 95 years:

LONDON, England (Reuters) — When British finance minister Gordon Brown stands up to make his pre-budget speech next week, aging rockers Cliff Richard, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones might do well to tune in.

Not normally the stuff of rock’n’roll, Wednesday’s address looks set to reject music industry calls for an extension of copyright on sound recordings to 95 years from 50, meaning veteran acts’ early hits could soon be free for all to use.

The government commissioned Andrew Gowers to review all areas of intellectual property law, including challenges thrown up by the consumption of music and film over the Internet, and he is seen as unlikely to recommend a copyright extension.

His conclusions are expected to be published next week as part of the chancellor’s annual pre-budget report.

Official sources say the Labour government appears more swayed by the right of consumers to access music cheaply, or, if it is 50 years old, essentially for free, than by old performers seeking protection.

Thus, it seems, the British will be resisting doing what Congress did when it extended copyright protection in the United States beyond the original 75 year term after lobbying by the recording and movie industries. More importantly, though, it points out something I’ve always believed; patents and copyrights are purely creatures of the state, not the manifestation of natural law.

There is, I would suggest, no such thing as a natural right to intellectual property, because the very nature of ideas is such that they must be shared to be worth anything. Imagine what the state of scientific research, for example, would be if there was something equivalent to copyright protection for scientific ideas. In science, the arts, and liberal arts such as history, advances only occur when someone builds on what someone else did, often borrowing from what was done in the past.

In the United States, patents and copyrights are purely a creature of the Constitution, which grants Congress the power:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

Two points need to be emphasized. First, the purpose of the patent and copyright laws is to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” At some point, a balance needs to be struck between protecting inventors and artists to allow them to create and creating an atmosphere that promotes innovation. Copyrights and patents that exist for a limited period of time arguable do that, extending those rights for a nearly unlimited period of time does not. Second, the Founders clearly intended that the time of protection by “limited.” While Article I is silent on what this means, an argument can be made that any protection that exists beyond the lifespan of an individual inventor or artist is per se unreasonable.

There are high stakes involved in the British decision to be announced next week. It may be true that the first artist to be impacted is someone I had to look up on Wikipedia, but there are big names whose 50 year time periods aren’t too far away:

More significantly for record labels who do a lucrative trade in remastering and repackaging old hits, The Beatles catalogue could be up for grabs from 2012 and 2013, including early hits like “Love Me Do” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

Then come The Shadows and The Rolling Stones, to name but a few.

The question is whose interests are more important, the artists, or the consumers ?

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  • http://unrepentantindividual.com/ Brad Warbiany

    Wait a second… Wait just one freaking second…

    Since when can anything that, say, Britney Spears has created be considered a “useful art”… How does that deserve copyright protection?!

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