COPYRIGHT - FAIR or FOUL?

I am writing this to rebut a lot of mis-informed criticism I’ve heard and read recently regarding copyright on original works. This is from the perspective of someone who has made a living out of an industry, which exists because of copyright. Yet the copyright creator’s voice is rarely heard above the cacophony of opinion pieces and industry bodies who like to speak on our behalf.

Lately, copyright has been in the media because the government is reviewing copyright law. I have seen a few articles here and there by intellectuals or lawyers who are saying that  some of the terms are too long. And that even the 50 year term (one of the shortest terms in world) is too long. 

What this means for music is that a master recording of a song will be in copyright for 70 years from when it was released and the musical work that was written (IP) stays in copyright for 70 years after death of all of the authors and musicians who have contributed to the making of the song.

What that means for the consumer right now is…not a lot.

The origins of copyright go back hundreds of years. Back when, if you were a composer, author, painter or poet you survived on the largesse of a wealthy benefactor; a lord, a king or the church. You had little choice but to live off the generosity of someone else.

One of the reasons Copyright was introduced was so that creative people could exploit their skills to make a viable living. It was the main vehicle for the development of creative industries.

One thing that is over-looked is that Copyright Law is as relevant to an individual composer, author, writer or musician as it is to the corporates. Individual, independent artists have the same legal protection of their works as the largest of companies because copyright law works the same for everyone. It is important for independent artists to understand their rights and not be afraid of the word ‘exploitation’ because what that means is producing a positive financial reward for your effort.

About 13 years ago I was sorting out my will. I had children and I had to think about what provisions would be in place if something happened to me. I had never even thought about writing a will before because in my mind I didn’t own a brass razoo.  No property, no savings, no car, no anything that was tangible or saleable on Trade Me – well perhaps a few dresses and shoes.

I had spent a good 20 years working on the craft of music and all I had to show for it was my music.

As it turned out I did have something of value to leave my children the copyright in both my master recordings and the musical works (IP) had a value.

Copyright is my livelihood. It will see my work through to my deathbed and it will mean I can leave my children and their children a little something. Not a gold watch or a family heirloom – but a couple of copyrights.

I didn’t really understand a lot about copyright at that stage even though I had been writing music since I was very young.  I understood that I received an APRA/AMCOS or Recorded Music NZ royalty cheque occasionally but I didn’t understand why or even where the royalty came from.

That all changed when I moved into the area of music publishing and now it is my business to know

Some people choose careers which ensure they earn as they go and can put things away for a rainy day. When I chose the craft of music I gave away that stability of income -  however the copyright in the work means that I will earn money for my work over a long period of time.

How much? Who knows. I will never know the absolute value of my songs and recordings. Over the years they will continue to collect royalties and I will receive a sporadic income from broadcast royalties, TV and film synchs and other commercial copyright uses on platforms as yet unknown.

But I also want to make something really clear – I am very happy for people to use my music for creative purposes and whenever anyone asks if they can use my music for non-commercial purposes I say yes, go for it. It is a great honour for people to tell you that they would like to interpret your work or sample it or use it was something. Most artists feel that way it’s only when a person assumes they can take your idea and use it for their own benefit and not acknowledge your contribution when it gets a little sticky.

And of course when there are millions of dollars at stake.

There are some instances where I would prefer that my music was not associated with something. For example if I don’t want a political party to use my music to promote their cause, then I am assured of my legal right to deny this use; if I don’t like a particular brand that would like to use my song in a commercial I can decline the use. I am very grateful for this control; in a world full of people taking advantage of one another I still have a small say in what becomes of my music.

In my view the main inhibitor of creativity in New Zealand is the inability of the artist to make a living from their work/art.

Copyright doesn't inhibit or impede creativity, far from it. People have more reason to keep creating and releasing works, if they know they can make a living from it.

What the introduction of copyright law hundreds of years ago did for the artisan was ensure it put food on the table. It meant the creative who who produced a work that another person could use or enjoy would continue to get paid over a long period of time via royalty payments.

When you write or compose a song, you don’t get paid upfront. I can’t ask an employer to pay me for the hours of work I spent working on creating music. 

In the same way a farmer invests in a cow which produces milk which is on-sold as cheese or a beverage or the plumber who learns his trade and gets paid by the hour - the artist invests their time in learning their craft then producing a work and releasing it to the public. The key difference here is that each industry remunerates in a different way.

The farmer can budget according to a perceived return of his investment in stock. The plumber gets a weekly wage. But the songwriter never really knows if anything will ever come from their work. If you want to pick a safe and secure trade than an income derived from copyright might not be for you.  Living by the arts is not for the fainthearted.

Of course sometimes your work can be a worldwide hit and that means you are going to make a lot more money than a plumber will make in a life time. If that happens, great, but it is 99% likely you will do many hours of hard graft for a minimum return.

To say that copyright is an unfair or unjust system because it means you have to pay for something that you would prefer to use without payment… is basically saying you don’t believe people should be paid a living/fair wage.

I believe that the true villain of creative freedom is not copyright law it is the inability for some to believe in the importance of the creative sector.   

The copyright Industry creates jobs - just the same as any other industry.

For every movie you pay $20 to see – behind it are pay cheques for authors, actors, camera-people, caterers, musicians, gaffers, marketers, advertising companies, cleaners, costume-makers, stylists, fashion houses etc.

Copyright is also one of the ‘greenest’ industries in the world. You don’t need to pollute streams or the atmosphere, feed animals, over-package, generate plastic or spend money on transport, when you are creating an idea.  You create ideas out of thin air and in turn you produce these ideas to take to the public.

There’s no shipping. And unlike a kilo of milk powder, a creative work can be exported and ‘resold’ many, many times over for generations.

Songs don’t retire early because they’ve pulled a hamstring. There are no tariffs or quotas, no parochial protectionism keeping imports out. Music is enjoyed in every country in the world and passes freely through borders.

I look forward to when New Zealand business and the public really understand that a strong and thriving creative sector can only be a good thing for the country and its economy.