9.8.11 Gettin' It All Back
This article was originally published in the 9.8.11 issue of Metroland
Musicians: Our friends at the Future of Music Coalition have just launched a comprehensive study on how working musicians make money these days. (I know, I know...what money?) This is an important undertaking as the landscape of musician revenue has changed wildly over the years. Go fill it out! Right freakin' now! Yes, I am talkin' to you, as a matter of fact. I also should remind you that FOMC’s annual Policy Summit is taking place October 2 and 3 at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Panelists so far include the CEO of Tunecore, the Chief Product Officer at Rhapsody, brilliant digital copyright law professor and writer Jessica Litman, and a whole lot of folks from all over the emergent music industry. I’ll be running a lunchtime workshop with my pal Marcy Wagman from the Drexel music industry program. And it’s looking like Ozomatli is playing the party Monday night! It’s the only professional conference I attend, and every year I learn what’s coming next and meet a bunch of incredible people. This conference is cheap and fantastic, and if you are in the biz even a little you really should try to go. More info on all of this at www.futureofmusic.org.
Moving on. I got a lot of correspondence this week about recent articles in the New York Times and elsewhere reporting on the pending battle over copyright reversion rights—where creators can get back copyrights they sold off, starting in 2013. Now, if you’ve been a regular reader of this column, you already know about all of this because I wrote about it almost exactly a year ago. But for you newbies, and those of you who, like me, have memory issues, perhaps brought on by overly rigorous activities in the 1980’s, I offer a shortened version of what I wrote a year ago:
Once upon a time, Congress made copyright laws that supported the Constitutional purpose of copyright law, that being the betterment of society, and we got a fair and sturdy bunch of laws as a result. Those days are long gone. These days most new copyright laws are written by lobbyists for Big Media companies, and Congress dutifully passes them because they’re “good for business” and the lobbying money is good for the lawmaker’s campaign chests.
Anyway, there is a provision in the copyright law that, believe it or not, says that you can reclaim your copyrights 35 years after you transfer them. The law was put in place to protect artists who transferred their copyrights for cheap when they were young, stupid, and broke, and/or pursuant to lousy deals that paid them squat.
This law went into effect on January 1, 1978, and applies to all works transferred after that date. 35 years after that is January 1, 2013, and that’s when artists can start getting their stuff back.
This law is expected to have the biggest immediate impact on the music business, because it affects the heart of what’s come to be called “classic rock”, some of the most valuable recordings in the history of music.
The music industry, which has made a fortune selling this music to you first on vinyl albums, then on cassettes, CDs, digital downloads, re-mastered versions, best-of repackages, soundtracks, etc., isn’t taking this sitting down. In 1999, the recording industry tried to nuke this law by pulling one of the most sleazy legislative stunts ever—through a bought-off congressional staffer, it snuck a law through Congress that explicitly exempted sound recordings from this whole rights reversion thing. Once musicians got wind of this, they descended on Congress and got the law repealed. (FYI, the congressional staffer who made this happen, a creep named Mitch Glazier, was hired a few months later by the RIAA and is now making millions as its chief lobbyist.)
Undeterred by this profoundly public embarrassment, the RIAA continues to claim that sound recordings aren’t subject to the rights reversion law. The RIAA’s legal arguments about this are strained, convoluted, stretched and weak, but you can bet that the RIAA is ready to spend millions of dollars (all of which it’s made off musicians) to fight off musicians’ attempts to get their copyrights back to their own recordings.
As reported last week in the New York Times, Detroit Congressman John Conyers is looking to pass a revision to the copyright law that explicitly states that sound recordings are subject to the rights reversion law, and he's going to actively solicit bipartisan support for the bill. Could luck with that. Not only is the atmosphere in Congress absolutely toxic to any sort of cooperation, Conyers will be trying to convince a bunch of bought-off politicians who receive millions of dollars of contributions every year from the RIAA and the rest of the Big Media companies, none of which are particularly fond of the rights reversion law. Politicians who are banking on their belief that you aren't watching. But, as Conyers says, his proposed law would provide fairness for artists who've traditionally been ripped off by the record companies (yeah, he really said that!) and would avoid huge legal battles, fights that most musicians simply can’t afford anyway.
So we’ll see. Meantime, the Digital Music News site has posted a fantastic and comprehensive guide to the issues along with detailed instructions for how to get your rights back. You can find it right here: http://www.digitalmusicnews.com/stories/082910termination.