Panel: Copyright Needed In Music, But Should Benefit Musicians

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Copyright is critical to the survival of the music industry and its creators, but lack of respect for copyright is not why artists are struggling to make ends meet, argued a recent panel of media lawyers and music industry experts. The blame for that lies squarely on the corporate-focus of the music industry, and how it has bent copyright law to serve companies rather than composers, said a panel at the University of Westminster.

File-sharing too is an issue, but innovative thinking may be required to find new ways to manage music sharing practices which have become outdated, panellists said.

The “biggest flaw in music is not copyright, it’s business practice,” said attorney and lecturer Ben Challis. Business practices that shift rights from the author or song writer to companies are the reason that artists do not get paid, he added. A fair regime would protect artists as well as the corporate side, he added.

Copyright has “shown itself for what it truly is,” said Kienda Hoji, an entertainment lawyer and senior lecturer at the University of Westminster. It is a system that benefits those who want to make money, not the creators who deserve to, he said.

They were speaking at an event called Talking Copyright: Reflecting On A 300 Year History & The Music Industry, held at the University of Westminster in London on 15 June. The event was organised by British Black Music, an online resource, and the Black Music Congress, a “forum for discussing issues around black music, networking, and a pathway to music industry education.”

It was intended to explore whether copyright laws are robust enough for the internet age, and if copyright awareness campaigns had lost the hearts and minds of young music consumers.

Many examples of copyright leaving the artist behind were cited by the event chair, Kwaku, founder of the Black Music Congress and one of the directors of British Black Music.

Composer Solomon Linda, a South African Zulu, composed a song called “Mbube” after the Zulu word for “lion.” The song later became famous as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which was eventually licensed to Disney for its film the Lion King, but Linda died poor, having not seen a fraction of the money generated by his work, said Kwaku.

A settlement in 2006 finally acknowledged – more than 45 years after Linda’s death – the South African origin of the song, and guaranteed his heirs, until that time living in poverty, an income, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization magazine.

And Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an English composer, had sold his wildly popular song Hiawatha to Novello for 15 guineas (British pounds) in the late 1800s and received no further royalties on it. Novello is still collecting on it, said Kwaku.

Two model laws should be more common if artists are to fully benefit from copyright laws, said David Stopps, the copyright & related rights director at the International Music Managers Forum.

These are: a German law in which the transfer of copyright can only be done by licence, which means that the rights rest fundamentally with artists; and a United States law that limits the transfer of copyright – after 35 years the creator has the right to get the copyright back. This could help prevent cases where music is still under copyright yet not available to the public: a worst-case scenario for the artist, who then cannot make money but cannot do anything with the music either, said Stopps.

The US law went into effect in 1978, meaning 2013 is the first opportunity for it to be used, said Stopps. Record companies are opposed, he added, so he predicted there will be legal cases.

And some aspects of copyright are outdated, said Challis, adding that his students were horrified that sampling from existing songs is illegal, as they see song creation from sampling as creating a new thing.

In a changing digital environment, however, new business models are needed as much as new artist savvy.

Pauline Henry, a singer and former member of Scottish band the Chimes asked why it was still possible for people to download music for free. The trick is to have music available online but without piracy, she said.

If more than half of the population is involved in file sharing – and if this constitutes over 90 percent of the digital market – said Challis, then this constitutes market failure and there must be better ways to manage it, perhaps through an “access to music charge” akin to the British television charge.

Stopps said that many artists now make more from rights to their image than to their music: singer Beyoncé, for example, owed more than half of her income to branding associated with her name.

But selling music is not necessarily a lost cause. “You can compete with free,” said Stopps, pointing to the success of bottled water. But part of it is understanding how people behave.

“Record companies shoot themselves in the foot with production times” that see songs released on radio but unavailable for purchase until eight weeks later, for example, said Stopps. The “public won’t wait,” and if music is only available on Pirate Bay then this just drives piracy, he said.

A member of the audience suggested getting in touch with young music fans, who are often willing to pay artists directly.

Kaitlin Mara may be reached at

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  1. says

    If you set out with “Copyright is critical to the survival of the music industry and its creators” as your premise then this is what you will end up with as a conclusion – irrespective of ample evidence to the contrary.

    Why not set out with a question that needs answering, rather than how to preserve an anachronistic 18th century privilege that been rendered ineffective and obsolete by modern communications technology?

    Who should creators sell their intellectual work to, now that the monopoly governing manufacture of copies is no longer effective and we can look forward to the demise of the creators’ former customers, the copy manufacturing, distribution and retail industries?

    Fortunately, it’s got a simple answer, and it doesn’t involve copyright. But my point is that you’d never get that answer if you believe that copyright is a priori essential to a creator’s prosperity.

  2. Louise Nemschoff says

    I would just like to expand on some information in this report about the U.S. law (i.e., termination of transfers after 35 years). The law took effect in 1978, but among other things, it contains provisions expressly dealing with pre-1978 works, some of which confirm a modified version of the judicial doctrine whereby heirs of a deceased author can recapture copyright for the renewal term. In fact, there have already been a number of cases regarding the application of these provisions, including cases involving “Winnie the Pooh,” Superman comics, the choreography of Martha Graham, works by John Steinbeck, several film writers and an American television series. The results of these cases have been very mixed.

  3. says

    So far so good, but not far enough. The real, fundamental question is, how are cultural workers to be compensated for their contributions to the public good? If it is the ‘creators’ – those I’d prefer to call ‘cultural workers’- and not the big media corporations that need to be cared for, then let’s not assume any existing capitalist business models are going to address the problem.

  4. says

    Give copyright back to the authors

    Actually, copyright law itself is not that complex. The structure behind it is. Collecting societies, music publishers and record companies, who knows what they are doing? Imagine, you’re a small artist who wants to be famous. Sign here, sign here and sign here. Before you know it you don’t have any rights left, including income from gigs and merchandising. It used to be evident that we wanted to reward the creativity of people. Nowadays, it’s not that obvious anymore. My idea is that we should not discuss copyright law, but how to protect the performing, reproduction and any other rights of the music authors. Luckily I’m not the only one who is worried. It can’t be any coincidence that the Featured Artists Coalition was founded. They want the artists to have more control of their music and a much fairer share of the profits it generates in the digital age. But there is also another way. The internet is a promising marketing environment, fit for individual management of copyright and the delivery of rights on demand to users. In these circumstances the music authors are in full control of their rights. And is that not what it used to be all about? Giving the advantages of being creative to such persons? I hope the authors will be more and more aware of the fact that they have a strong legal position.

  5. says

    A) Copyright (as spelled out in the US Constitution) is for the benefit of the public, not the creators.

    B) It is meant to balance the interests of creators (or the companies they license their creations to) and the interests of the public. Unfortunately over the past half century, all the “reforms” has tilted that balance radically towards the interests of the creators/corporations.

    Why not just return copyright terms to a sane limit like 20 years? This restores the balance and encourages creators to continue creating. Frankly, if you haven’t made money from your creations in 20 years, you’re not likely to make any more. There will be that exceptional .02% that would continue being profitable (think James Brown’s “I Feel Good” etc) of course, but again, the point of copyright is to benefit the public. If nothing is ever release into the public domain, when does the public get a benefit? That would resolve the issue of sampling outright. Plus, there’s nothing stopping you from making money from your creations after it is released to the public domain.


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