Nothing is forever. This we all know. When we think about copyright duration, which is a lot less than forever, most of us in this business tend to think of it more in relation to compositions, not so much as it pertains to sound recordings. That’s why I believe you’ll find what you’re about to read especially interesting.
Copyright laws vary somewhat from country to country, but for songs the general rule is that the right lasts for the lifetime of the author (or last surviving author if there is more than one involved) plus a certain number of years past their death.
Likewise, copyright in masters exists for a limited time. In the U.S., for recordings published (i.e., released) prior to 1977 it is 95 years; for post-1976 recordings it is the actual recording artist’s life plus 70 years. In Europe, however, it is substantially shorter. This is where things have begun to get really interesting in the last few years.
Until very recently, for sound recordings sold in Europe copyright existed for just 50 years from the date of publication. Thus, under European copyright law, Elvis’ track “That’s All Right” fell into public domain on January 1, 2005. As of that date, anyone could copy and release that sound recording in those countries without paying royalties to the owners of the master or the track’s performers/performers’ heirs (although they still have to pay a license fee for use of the song).
I remember the subject of lapsing master copyrights being all the buzz at that year’s Midem music conference in Cannes, France. Some there, like the major labels that own a lot of old masters, were sweating bricks while others that specialized in issuing re-mastered versions of out-of-copyright recordings rubbed their hands in glee. Most of us, at least many from this side of the water, were totally surprised by the whole thing. It felt almost surreal.
Every year since in Europe, more and more recordings that define rock and roll have come into public domain. The major record companies, seeing chunks of their catalogue fall out of their control in the territory, fought to have copyright protection extended. But it wasn’t until the UK government woke up to the fact that a valuable piece of British heritage–i.e., music from the “British invasion” era–was about to become fair game for poachers that a concerted push was made to extend life in master copyright throughout the region.
Finally, after much hand-wringing and squabbling, the European parliament approved a 20 year extension. It became effective November 1, but not before a fair number of modern era hit recordings had already become public domain. Unfortunately for the labels, and the performing artists who had been earning public performance (a.k.a. “neighbouring rights”) royalties on those vintage tracks, the legislation is not retroactive. A good number of old war horses, including a few early Beatles hits, have already slipped through that door and are out of the barn.