Interesting piece here exploring the fact that today ‘Please Please Me’ – the hit that really made the band famous – has gone into the public domain, as its 50 year copyright period has expired.
The article takes the view that this is a tragedy, one that leaves The Beatles’ music open to exploitation. Anything surrounding digital music rights is a complex debate, but I want to pare apart two issues here. What we are not dealing with in this story is whether musicians now can expect to make money from selling recordings, or whether Spotify and music piracy have destroyed that revenue model for good. I take this on in Mutiny, but don’t want to muddy the waters with that here.
What we are dealing with in this piece is the issue of the appropriate length of copyright. The article takes the view that a 50 year copyright term is not long enough, and that the move towards 70 years should be put in place. I disagree with this for a number of reasons – all of which I outline more comprehensively in Mutiny, but which I want to touch on again here.
Firstly, if your music is still popular enough for people to be interested in ‘exploiting’ it after 50 years then, in my view, go you. You’ve clearly had a very decent career, and made a significant impact. The Beatles – or the two of them remaining – certainly have made enough to last a million lifetimes. Other ‘old’ bands like The Rolling Stones have done the same. So I simply don’t buy that argument that, as Mick Jagger has said, he needs the extended copyright to continue to put food on the table for his family.
The original principle of copyright was this:
private compensation, followed by public benefit.
In other words, an innovator invests money, ideas, research and comes up with a great new light bulb. They get a period of exclusivity in selling that new technology, which rewards them for their labour. This is to encourage innovation. But, that exclusivity is temporary. Why? Because after a time the new ideas tied up in the new bulb need to put into the public domain, so that everyone can benefit from them.
In short, copyright was created both to reward the innovator and enrich the public domain. However, what we have seen recently – as outlined by Lewis Hyde in Common as Air – is a collapse of this bilateral function. Copyright is now seen as only to benefit the creator. And this, I think, has impoverished our communal life, our life ‘in the commons.’
The removal of copyright does not, let’s be clear, deny the creator any right to continue to make money from their creation. Indeed, the article actually suggests that the end of copyright has given those who own The Beatles’ music a nudge to create premium products that fans will want to invest in:
‘It’s tempting to conclude that these advances (ie iTunes and new remastered versions) would not have happened if this particular financial brick wall wasn’t approaching the various stakeholders in the Beatle brand with some speed.’
My view is that the period from 1960 – 1995 was an almost artificial blip. Because of technology, artists could record and distribute music for major major profits, without any reproduction technology interfering with that. The copyright argument stems largely, I feel, from a few major bands who have got very very rich being rather greedy about their music. It’s time for them to innovate – release new good stuff – or face the music.
The place of music and musicians in the commons, and the gifts musicians have to offer, is, I think, a really interesting debate. It’s one I’m hoping to get the chance to have in public, perhaps with a few London musicians I know. We’ll see.
Anyway, enjoy the free Beatles tunes. I actually do think that this is a moment for celebration. My kids absolutely love their music, and have been introduced to it partly through the Wii game, Beatles Rock Band. Who’d have thought that 50 years ago? Paul and Ringo should be happy to let the music free. They wasted enough years already griping and chasing one another for money.