net.wars: I hear dead people

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 14 December 2006

You just can't please some dead people.

Wendy M Grossman

Last week's report from the Gowers review and its recommendation not to extend the term of copyright in sound recordings past the current 50 years predictably annoyed the record industry. A day later, Phonographic Performance Limited, the collection society for sound recordings, responded by taking out a full-page ad in the Financial Times listing 4,500 musicians whose signatures it collected protesting Gowers' recommendation.

Well, fair enough; if anyone has the right to talk about copyright in sound recordings it's musicians, without whom there would be nothing to talk about. That doesn't mean they should have the right to dictate policy, but probably few outside the business understand the extent to which any musician who stays in the business any length of time has been ripped off (by both professionals and amateurs), cheated, and otherwise buffeted by the "I love your music"s of life. Spend any time with them, and you'll run across a load of people who are determined that if they can ever get their rights back they're never going to lose control of them again.

It's just that some of the musicians signing the ad were… dead.

It's not a big deal. No one is alleging that the Gowers recommendations made them commit suicide or anything. They're just dead.

And, apparently, recomposing.

Mind you, the people most affected by term expiry are in fact the dead musicians, since it's rare for them to produce new recordings and therefore royalties from the old ones are all they have in the way of income.

Among known dead contributors to the PPL petition are Lonnie Donegan, Richard Harris, Freddie Garrity, Jimmy Shand, Richard Berry, Iain Mackintosh (whom I knew and, like everyone, liked a lot), and Nat Gonnella, with death dates varying from 1997 until just last August (Mackintosh).

Among the lesser-known session musicians and small-timers, there may be many more, and some of the names on the list may be in fact heirs controlling the estate rather than the musician himself. The British folksinger great Cyril Tawney (who wrote "Grey Funnel Line", "Sally, Free and Easy", and other classics) is not listed – he died in 2005 – but his widow is.

I can think of a number of ways that dead musicians' names might end up on a petition like this.

  • Mediumship:
  • paging James Randi to the white courtesy phone... If someone can contact these musicians, explain the debate to them, and get a reliable signature under proper observing conditions this person clearly qualifies for James Randi's $1 million award. Randi expects to resume his normally hectic schedule (after a bout of ill-health) in the next few months. One to investigate, surely.

  • Prior art:
  • the PPL collected signatures by contacting musicians "throughout the year" and asking them to sign the petition to support the campaign. "One-man folk festival" Pete Coe says "I did sign up for this, as I support the campaign." It seems reasonable to assume, at least in the case of the more recent deaths such as Mackintosh's, that the musicians themselves signed the petition. The older deaths are almost certainly…

  • Proxy:
  • their heirs and assigns signed it in their name. In the case of "James Shand", the original Jimmy Shand's son is himself a performer, as is his brother, Neil, and any family that's been in the business that long is likely to be well aware of what rights mean in terms of income. There is a basic assumption here that benefiting the musicians' widows, children, and grandchildren is the same to the general public as providing a longer run of royalties to the musicians themselves.

    Coe's comment on that score is likely to be pretty much most people's reaction: "I don't have a problem with family claims though I don't have much sympathy with corporate record claims unless the royalties really are being passed on to the composers' heirs."

    The PPL's petition, however, did not cover composers' rights, merely performance rights in sound recordings; there may of course be other petitions and campaigns that the PPL has in mind. Probably also those heirs who are not getting royalties passed on to them would be less likely to sign the petition.

    But if that's the situation, then the PPL needs to be clear about it, because it isn't fair to play on the deep emotional connection people make with their favorite musicians if the petition's supporters are not actually those musicians but their descendants.

    Income-producing rights are the one valuable thing many musicians have to leave their families; it's natural for the families to want to hang onto them. But that's not how we make policy. Copyright was created, and persists, to give creators incentives so they will continue to create and rewards so they can afford to continue to create. You make a lot less music if you have to spend all day working in a Post Office to support your habit. At least that's the theory, though it doesn't seem to work for dead musicians, who have all the time in the world at their disposal and no living expenses, and yet produce very little.

    Keep music dead. Hire dead musicians.

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    Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).