A lot of people that I talk to about copyright law immediately declare that it’s too complex to think about and therefore beyond their ability to decipher. This is exactly what copyright holders want us to do. They’d rather us spin our wheels arguing at the water cooler over whether “Blurred Lines” sounds like a Marvin Gaye song than look at the actual concrete data of notes or do any kind of assessment of the merits of the case.
So to rectify that, I’m gonna drop a primer on you. Just so you know how easy copyright law really is to understand, and why it keeps getting increasingly litigious.
In the U.S., we had copyright laws pretty early on. The Continental Congress agreed “that nothing is more properly a man’s own than the fruit of his study, and that the protection and security of literary property would greatly tend to encourage genius and to promote useful discoveries.”
Easy, right? If you make a discovery or an invention or a number of other unique things, you get a certain amount of time to try and make money on it. You could either get 14 years, and if you were still alive after that you got another 14. That was it. Other states set limits of 7, 14, or 21 years, with no renewal.
This was quickly standardized at the federal level by the Copyright Clause in the Constitution, which paved the way for the Copyright Act of 1790. 14 years, renewable once for 14 more years. Copyrights would be issued by Congress from that point forward.
Simple, right? So if you wrote a book, you could sell it exclusively for up to 28 years. After that, anyone could make, buy, or sell a copy. This is what “public domain” means. The work now belongs to the public and the public is free to do whatever they want with it.
In 1909, the copyright term was extended to 28 years plus one renewal for another 28 years. A Representative at the time said, “It has been a serious and difficult task to combine the protection of the composer with the protection of the public…”
In 1976, in order to comply with an international copyright treaty (where nations would treat foreign copyrights the same way as their own), the terms were increased to the life of the author plus 50 years.
In 1998, copyright terms were increased to the life of the author plus 70 years.
Do you see how this enables corporations to secure the rights to songs and exploit those rights, often at the expense of the artist or their family? As soon as individuals were allowed to transfer copyright, it was certain that we’d end up here eventually.
The current function and endless extension of copyright has strangled the original intent to the point where it shouldn’t even be called copyright anymore. This kind of exploitation by gigantic media conglomerates, who buy up song catalogs and then sit on them, who charge a documentary filmmaker $600,000 to use the song “Happy Birthday”, which arguably dates back to 1893, and which prior to a recent lawsuit Warner/Chappell expected to retain the copyright to until 2030. That’s 137 years. Nearly 500% longer than the original 28 years.
In order to retain control over copyrights, the conglomerates have pursued a strategy of divide and conquer: pander to new artists by preaching about fairness and vowing to protect their interests, while at the same time working furiously to dominate those interests. And artists have taken the bait. They’d rather us argue over whether Spotify pays enough per play, which we’re happy to do, because otherwise we might figure out how fucked up the balance of power is in the music industry and we might do something about it.
Labels are notorious for deceptive bookkeeping. Ask any artist who has tried to have an audit done. A major label has no problem declaring a million-selling album a huge success while holding the artist hostage behind the scenes, claiming it hadn’t recouped and therefore keeping the band perpetually in debt to them. This is all well-documented and yet I’ve not seen many indie artists go on the record to talk about how much they’re getting shafted, most likely for fear of retribution.
It becomes very easy when you look at the possible motivations. The only one that makes sense is money. Not altruism, and certainly not the charity of struggling indie artists.
After all this, I need a chill playlist. You with me?
[Post image via Shutterstock]