Sunday, October 7, 2018

John Conyers: Music legends deserve R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Quirk in copyright laws allows free use of songs recorded before 1972. That's wrong.

Dean of the U.S. House
of Representatives
John Conyers, Jr.
Does it make any sense that Motown legend Dionne Warwick is being compensated by digital music services when they use her recording of I'll Never Love This Way Again (1979) but not for her recordings of Walk On By (1964), I Say a Little Prayer (1967) or I'll Never Fall in Love Again (1968)? Similarly, should The Temptations be compensated for the use of their recording of Papa Was a Rollin' Stone (1972) but not for their recordings of My Girl(1964)?

A quirk of history protects songs recorded before 1972 under state law and songs recorded after Feb. 15, 1972 under federal law. Some digital radio services interpret that disparity to resist paying legacy artists who recorded music before 1972. The inexplicable result is that artists whose recordings were made before 1972 are not compensated by digital radio services while their counterparts whose recordings were made after that time are paid.
For creators and producers, music is their livelihood. Their work product — their property — is what pays the bills.

House panel investigation
In recent months, the House Judiciary Committee has begun exploring whether copyright law is in need of revision in light of technologies that have revolutionized the way we access information and entertainment. This investigation could also reveal whether the compact between those who create music, those who distribute music and those who consume music remains fair and workable.

Rolling Stone compiled what the magazine considers the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." Nine out of their top 10 songs, and 18 out of their top 20, were recorded before 1972. Many of these songs were a soundtrack for social movements and change and are still played all the time. For example, No. 4: Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On (1971), and No. 5: Aretha Franklin's Respect (1967), which not only anointed her as the Queen of Soul but also became an anthem of feminism. It is undeniably disrespectful for the digital music services not to compensate Aretha for her work.

Satellite radio included
And don't forget that there are numerous stations on satellite radio that air nothing but songs recorded before 1972. Clearly, they do artists wrong by not paying to use their older songs.

This arbitrary line in copyright law also means that these music services are compensating some artists for the use of the newer parts of their catalog but not for the older parts. While state law offers a patchwork quilt of protection, the Library of Congress has recommended revisions that ensure consistency and uniformity by bringing all sound recordings under the federal copyright umbrella. While we would need to work with the Library's experts, users and rights holders to address the complex issues presented by such a transition, it is worth the effort to protect older artists, curtail litigation and eliminate the untenable withholding of royalties.

I can only imagine what new devices will be used to listen to "oldies" in the future — but we're grateful that technology will keep our rich music history alive. As Congress undertakes its review of copyright law, ensuring due compensation for sound recordings made before 1972 is worthy of our consideration and, most certainly, our Respect.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

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