Will they still want your music seventy years after you die?

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Record-Producer.com.

Thursday November 30, 2006
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Not a very exciting thought really. It's a small comfort however to know that there is a possibility that your music might continue after your time on Earth has passed. The oldest music that we know today is around 1000 years old. Many of the composers are anonymous, but what a great legacy they have left.

But that's old music, what about the music of today? And where does this figure of seventy years come in?

It comes down to the idea of copyright. When a song, or any creative work, is recorded in a permanent form - on paper or electronic media - its author is automatically vested with copyright in that work. Yes, that's automatic. You don't have to do anything to be awarded copyright in your own work. In some jurisdictions it is wise to register your work in order to protect it against people who might steal your creative energy, but in essence copyright is a beautifully simply idea.

So what is copyright? The long answer - many pages of legal jargon. The short answer - you have complete control over your work - who performs it or records it, where and when, how much they have to pay. You can even put your work in a drawer and forbid anyone to ever hear it, if you wish.

But the best part is, if people like your work, you can get them to pay you to use it. And money is always nice.

When the rules of copyright were written down in the form they exist today, it would have been easy to imagine that copyright should only last for the writer's lifetime. After that, surely anyone should be able to perform or record the work without payment.

But no, that would lower the monetary value of the work. Most songwriters and composers need publishers to promote their work. But why would a publisher put in the massive effort necessary if he or she thought the writer might succumb to a heart attack in the next six months, or any of a million possible fates?

So copyright was extended for a period after death, which now stands at seventy years. So the publisher is guaranteed of a nice long period to exploit the work, and when they want to retire, they can sell on the time that is left. What was originally the writer's share now goes to whoever the writer appointed in their will.

All of this works very smoothly for writers, publishers, and indeed the audience.

The only trick is how to make your music stand the test of time!

[As a point of interest, I have to mention that Disney applied to Congress to have the term on Mickey Mouse and his cohorts extended to 95 years! This was accepted - perhaps the lawmakers couldn't stand the thought of Mickey and the gang entering the public domain. Think about that, and about how much extra you are paying, next time you buy a cartoon feature for your kids or young relatives.]

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