The Reuters story, European Copyright Clock Ticking on Elvis Hits points out that the European copyright for the song “That’s All Right”, often considered to be the beginning of rock and roll, will lapse on January 1, 2005. Elvis’ tune will enter the public domain, free for all to use without the need to pay royalties.
As expected, the European music industry is scrambling to modify their copyright laws to more closely resemble those of the United States: 70 years after the death of the artist. While I consider myself an ardent capitalist, I really find this idea deplorable. Frankly, U.S. copyright laws should revert to the shorter 50 year timespan. Culture thrives on adapting works from the past. The vast stable of Disney’s movies are a testament to the value of creative works plucked from our shared creative pool. Music is no different. Fifty years of ownership are more than enough for an artist or company to reap a fair amount of compensation for the work they created. The fact that media giants like BMG will lose income as classic rock and roll songs are opened for cultural adoption and adaptation should only spur them to find the next major sensation to provide income for the next fifty years.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to hear what individual artists and those supported by major labels could do with seminal works by Elvis and The Beatles? New frontiers of music may well be opened for all of us, just as Disney did when adapting the stories of the Brothers Grimm (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White…) and Hans Christian Anderson (The Little Mermaid) for example. Oh, and let us not forget, as Lawrence Lessig notes in his Keynote from OSCON 2002:
>1928, my hero, Walt Disney, created this extraordinary work, the birth of Mickey Mouse in the form of Steamboat Willie. But what you probably don’t recognize about Steamboat Willie and his emergence into Mickey Mouse is that in 1928, Walt Disney, to use the language of the Disney Corporation today, “stole” Willie from Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill.”
>It was a parody, a take-off; it was built upon Steamboat Bill. Steamboat Bill was produced in 1928, no [waiting] 14 years–just take it, rip, mix, and burn, as he did to produce the Disney empire. This was his character. Walt always parroted feature-length mainstream films to produce the Disney empire, and we see the product of this. This is the Disney Corporation: taking works in the public domain, and not even in the public domain, and turning them into vastly greater, new creativity. They took the works of this guy, these guys, the Brothers Grimm, who you think are probably great authors on their own. They produce these horrible stories, these fairy tales, which anybody should keep their children far from because they’re utterly bloody and moralistic stories, and are not the sort of thing that children should see, but they were retold for us by the Disney Corporation. Now the Disney Corporation could do this because that culture lived in a commons, an intellectual commons, a cultural commons, where people could freely take and build. It was a lawyer-free zone.
So, at this point we risk losing future innovation in the worlds of entertainment, art and even technology. We risk losing the creation of new companies and untold profits (companies outside the U.S. will be more than happy to step in to reap those rewards). We risk losing our shared soul.
Ernest Miller has picked up on this story too, providing his thoughts in his post Rock and Roll Scheduled to Enter Public Domain in Europe Soon