Everything he does, he does it for us. Why Bryan Adams is on to something important about copyright

Rebecca Giblin, Monash University

Last Tuesday Bryan Adams entered the copyright debate.

That’s Bryan Adams the singer and songwriter, the composer of “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You”, and “Summer of ’69”.

Authors, artists and composers often have little bargaining power, and are often pressured to sign away their rights to their publisher for life.

Adams appeared before a Canadian House of Commons committee to argue they should be entitled to reclaim ownership of their creations 25 years after they sign them away.

No control until after you are dead

In Canada, they get them back 25 years after they are dead when the rights automatically revert to their estate. In Australia, our law used to do the same, but we removed the provision in 1968. In our law, authors are never given back what they give away.

Some publishers voluntarily put such clauses in their contracts, but that is something they choose to do, rather than something the law mandates.

Australia’s copyright term is long. For written works it lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. It was extended from 50 years after death as part of the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement.

What copyright is for

Copyright is a government-granted limited monopoly to control certain uses of an author’s work.

It is meant to achieve three main things: incentivise the creation of works, reward authors, and benefit society through access to knowledge and culture.

Incentive and reward are not the same thing.

The incentive needn’t be big

The copyright term needed to provide an incentive to create something is pretty short.

The Productivity Commission has estimated the average commercial life of a piece of music, for example is two to five years. Most pieces of visual art yield commercial income for just two years, with distribution highly skewed toward the small number with a longer life. The average commercial life of a film is three to six years. For books, it is typically 1.4 to five years; 90% of books are out of print after two years.

It is well accepted by economists that a term of about 25 years is the maximum needed to incentivise the creation of works.

But the rewards, for creators, should be

The second purpose is to provide a reward to authors, beyond the bare minimum incentive needed to create something. Quite reasonably, we want to give them a bit extra as thanks for their work.

But, in practice authors, artists and composers are often obliged to transfer all or most of their rights to corporate investors such as record labels or book publishers in order to receive anything at all.

In the film and television industries it is not unusual for creators to have to sign over their whole copyright, forever – and not just here on Earth but throughout the universe at large.




Read more:
Life plus 70: who really benefits from copyright’s long life?


It means investors don’t just take what is needed to incentivise their work but most of the rewards meant for the author as well.

This isn’t new. Creators have been complaining since at least 1737 that too often they have no choice but to transfer their rights before anyone knows what they are worth.

Other countries do it better

In recognition of these realities, many countries, including the US, have enacted author-protective laws that, for example, let creators reclaim their rights back after a certain amount of time, or after publishers stop exploiting them, or after royalties stop flowing. Other laws guarantee creators “fair” or “reasonable” payment.

Australia stands out for having no author protections at all.




Read more:
Australian copyright laws have questionable benefits


Canada’s law already protects authors by giving rights back to their heirs 25 years after they die. Bryan Adams’s proposal is to change one word in that law. Instead of copyright reverting to the creator 25 years after “death”, he wants it to revert 25 years after “transfer”.

Copyright is meant to be about ensuring access

Handing rights back to creators after 25 years would not only help them secure more of copyright’s rewards, it would also help achieve copyright’s other major aim: to promote widespread access to knowledge and culture.

Right now our law isn’t doing a very good job of that, particularly for older material.

Copyright lasts for so long, and distributors lose financial interest in works so fast, that they are often neither properly distributed nor available for anyone else to distribute.




Read more:
Australian copyright reform stuck in an infinite loop


In the book industry my research into almost 100,000 titles has found that publishers license older e-books to libraries on the same terms and for the same prices as newer ones. That includes “exploding” licences which force books to be deleted from collections even if nobody ever borrows them.

Publishers are interested in maximising their share of library collections budgets, not ensuring that a particular author continues to get paid or a particular title continues to get read.

As a result libraries often forgo buying older (but still culturally valuable) books even though they would have bought them if the publisher cared enough to make them available at a reasonable price.

Restricting access to books is not in the interests of authors or readers.

… and directing rewards where they are needed

If rights reverted after 25 years, as I have proposed and as Adams now proposes, authors would be able to do things like license their books directly to libraries in exchange for fair remuneration – say $1 per loan.

If authors weren’t interested in reclaiming their rights, they could automatically default to a “cultural steward” that would use the proceeds to directly support new creators via prizes, fellowships and grants – much like Victor Hugo envisaged with his idea of a “paid public domain” back in 1878.

We could do it all without changing the total copyright term imposed on us by the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement and other treaties. We could get creators paid more fairly while keeping Australian culture alive.

Reversion is the key.The Conversation

Rebecca Giblin, ARC Future Fellow; Associate Professor, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Mythtaken: Good versus Popular

popular-good-and-bad

Plenty of what’s popular isn’t good, and plenty of what’s good isn’t popular.

There is a school of thought and snobbery that says anything good is not popular and anything popular is not good. I regard this as a myth. I can’t remember any good stuff that wasn’t popular, because who is going to remember stuff that wasn’t popular and good? Well, it is a little more complicated than that.

Back when I was in high school the music scene changed. No longer were pop bands like New Kids On The Block acceptable on the radio, now it was Grunge and heavier, alternate styles of rock that ruled the airwaves. In 1991  Nirvana released the seminal Nevermind, Pearl Jam released Ten, Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger, and thus the reign of Seattle and Grunge music began. Add to that the release of Guns ‘n’ Roses last decent album, Use Your Illusion (1 and 2), and the cross-over metal album that forced the Grammys to include a new Hard Rock/Metal category, Metallica’s black album, and you can see that it was a good year to be a pimply teen music fan.

At the time you couldn’t talk about music without talking about Nirvana or Grunge. With the release of Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, the follow-up albums from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and the influx of punk bands like Greenday and The Offspring, alternative music like Grunge was KING. Unless you looked at the charts.

The best-selling song of 1991?
Bryan Adams – (Everything I do) I Do It For You.

Best selling album of 1991?
In Australia, Daryl Braithwaite – Rise; in the USA, Maria Carey – The Human Dog Whistle.

Okay, so some easy listening pop music snuck through with some sales, but Nevermind and the single Smells Like Teen Spirit must have been top 10, right? Nope. Nirvana’s single didn’t make a dent in the charts until 1992, and even then it only cracked the top 50 in Australia (#46) and was #32 in the USA. Of course, rock and metal have never sold singles as much as albums, but Nevermind still only got to #17 in Australia and was beaten by frikin Garth Brooks and Michael Jackson in the USA.

Alright, maybe this is just a once off. The Beatles were huge, right? They combined good music with popularity. Well, in the UK, yes, but in the rest of the world, not so much.*

Before I end up beating you over the eyeballs with this example further, I’ll come to my point: popular has nothing to do with good. Sure, there are examples of good art also becoming popular. The examples I used were still very popular music acts whose influence will continue long after we’ve forgotten what a Bieber is.  But people were still more likely to own an album by Garth Brooks or Vanilla Ice than Smashing Pumpkins.

This is why I think that good art is often remembered more fondly after the fact than at the time. Good art stands the test of time, influences others and finds new audiences. Popular art is often shallow, or is transient, which means the audience has forgotten it when the next popular thing comes along.

To quote Neil Gaiman, make good art. Make good art and popularity will be someone remembering your work long after you’re gone.

NB: Sorry for not including other countries’ album charts, more can be found here.
Some other blogs on the same topic: http://americantaitai.com/2012/11/02/good-vs-popular/
http://scottberkun.com/2009/being-popular-vs-being-good/

NB: This article is referring to Survivorship Bias, which is a form of sampling bias, and can be a form of logical fallacy.

* I wasn’t aware when I wrote this article of the actions of the US record label Capitol Records. It appears they did their best to make sure The Beatles weren’t popular in the US. I’d like to say I’m surprised by the things done by The Beatles’ own US record company, but tales of this sort seem to be all too common.