If you think about classic rock, soul, jazz, r&b and pop music, lots of names come to mind—the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis and Elvis, to name a few. What you may not realize is that federal copyright law doesn’t apply to recordings made by these performers before February 15, 1972.
This exception makes it hard for these artists—and thousands of less-known musicians and performers—to be paid for their contributions to musical culture.
Today, a bill was introduced that aims to address this issue, at least in a narrow sense. While its goal is worthy, the RESPECT Act—co-sponsored by George Holding (R-NC) and John Conyers (D-MI)—falls short of giving full rights to older performers. While the bill would create a statutory requirement for Internet and satellite radio to compensate artists and labels for playing their music, it does not establish a federal copyright for pre-1972 recordings. We’d be psyched to see these artists paid fairly and directly, but are inclined to see the proposed legislation as a stopgap measure.
Keep in mind that we’re only talking about recordings—musical works (think notes on paper and lyrics) have enjoyed federal recognition since the early 1800s, with public performances of compositions coming under federal law in 1897. But not every legendary performer was a legendary songwriter. In fact, many of the best-known recordings are composed and performed by entirely different sets of people.
Things gets even weirder when you consider that AM/FM radio pays songwriters and publishers for airplay, but is not required by law to pay recording artists or labels. Stranger still is the fact that Internet and satellite radio companies are required by law to pay songwriters and publishers as well as performers and labels. That is, unless the recordings were made before February 15, 1972, in which case federal law only compels payment for the musical work.
Confusing? You bet.
We want artists to get paid. And this approach is probably better than the current major label tactic of litigation for high damages with no guarantee of artist compensation resulting from a successful lawsuit. Let’s face it, the major labels haven’t always been great at paying performers. A Hill briefing today featured veteran artists such as Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Martha Reeves, Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield and Poco, “Duke of Earl” Gene Chandler, Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad, and family of Otis Redding supporting the bill. Even still, there was the odd remark about label treatment of artists. (Or not so odd, as the case may be.)
We can do better by our older artists, and there’s a path to do so. We’ve gone on record supporting the United States Copyright Office’s proposal for full federalization of pre-1972 copyrights because we can’t think of a single good reason to deny older artists their due. But the big labels see things differently.
As FMC’s Casey Rae said in a statement:
“The bigger labels have pushed to keep recordings from older artists out of the scope of federal copyright for reasons that defy logic. Maybe they want big damages and to set new legal precedent. Maybe they don’t want the hassle of identifying recordings that they actually own, because then they’d have to pay other artist royalties. Maybe they want to continue to pretend that creators aren’t eligible to reclaim their copyrights under federal law.
“This stopgap bill is a step in the right direction. But with trade industry groups like the RIAA stating on record that we need to simplify current copyright law, adding scaffolding to an already unwieldy structure may not be the best way to ensure artist compensation across the board.
“Make no mistake about it: recording artists should be paid for the use of their work. And the best way to do this is for Congress to follow the recommendations of the United States Copyright Office and federalize pre-’72 copyrights.”
With Congress currently conducting a review of current copyright law, we hope to bring this argument to the fore. Because artists should be treated with respect across the board, and not just in a way that benefits the big music companies.