September 20, 2020

News Flash: Some Copyrights to Expire

An article by Anthony Tommasini at the New York Times (online) reports that the European copyrights on many musical recordings for the 50’s will be expiring soon. Some paint this as a disaster for the recording industry.

This is one of those articles that just cries out for skeptical analysis. Several points leap to mind.

The tone of the article is that there is a problem that needs to be rectified, but it’s not clear exactly what the problem is. Sometimes it seems that the problem is that U.S. and European copyrights expire at different times. But the article implies at certain points that the problem is that the copyrights will expire at all.

According to the article, anyone will be able to release recordings of a work in Europe once its European copyright has expired, but it will be illegal to import and sell these works in the U.S. Here is the RIAA’s comment (quoted from the article):

“The import [into the U.S.] of those products would be an act of piracy,” said Neil Turkewitz, the executive vice president international for the Recording Industry Association of America, which has strongly advocated for copyright protections. “The industry is regretful that these absolutely piratical products are being released.”

Let’s disassemble this. The first sentence is pretty unobjectionable (leaving aside the use of “piracy” rather than the more accurate “infringement”). But the second sentence is a whopper, implying that a legal-in-Europe recording is an “absolutely piratical product” even if it is released only in Europe.

(By the way, this is a perfect example of how the term “piracy” promotes fuzzy thinking. It would be ridiculous to say that a legal-in-Europe recording, if released only in Europe, was an “absolutely infringing product.” I doubt you could get the New York Times to print such an obviously wrong statement. Say “piracy” and the statement is still wrong, but the error is harder to spot.)

There is another irony here. According to today’s article, because of the disparity in copyright terms, “The [RIAA] is trying to persuade European Union countries to extend terms of copyright.” Recall that U.S. copyright terms are longer, in part, because of the 20-year extension passed a in 1998. And yet, according to a February 19, 2002 article in the New York Times, “Support for the [1998 U.S.] extension also came from those who argued that it was necessary to match the copyright term granted by the European Union.”

Finally, check out this excerpt from today’s article [italics added],

Defenders of the copyright laws, like Mr. Turkewitz, argue that, if anything, American laws are still too lax and that the European laws are totally inadequate.

Shouldn’t that be “Critics of the copyright laws”? Only in the surreal world of copyright rhetoric can you “defend” something by arguing that it is “too lax” or “totally inadequte.” What Mr. Turkewitz is “defending” is not the copyright laws we actually have, but the ones that he wants us to have.