Sir Cliff Richard has been making me annoyed, and he wasn’t even singing. Sir Cliff is backing a BPI (British Phonographic Industry) campaign to extend the length of the term royalty payments are made to musicians. The trick here is to remember the difference between the publishing rights (the actual song as laid down in music and lyrics) and the mechanical rights (the recording of a performance of the song).
Technically the copyright of a song exists as soon as it is written, but it’s prudent to make a written version or a recording so that you can prove a song was written on a certain date. The rights to the song stay with the original writer or writers, and stay with them for (last I checked) 70 years after their death – the rights can be left in a will or sold to a third party. When someone records the song, they have to pay the writer (even if they are the writer) a royalty to use the song but the performers will frequently get a royalty on that particular recording of the song. The mechanical royalty runs out 50 years after the recording is made, and becomes copyright free; that is how Moby was able to sample all those early blues field recordings for his album “Play.” It would have just happened with some early Elvis catalogue, had the record company not prudently had it all re-mastered and re-released last year (a re-mastered record can count as a new one, it’s all a bit technical).
The argument put forward by Sir Cliff Richard, and others, is that the performer makes a contribution that is worth more than a 50-year royalty, and indicates how in America the copyright now covers 95 years (which will in most cases be longer than the lives of the performers). "We are as important to a song as the writer is because we give it life," said Sir Cliff. I would agree with this to some extent, but argue that with much music from the last 30 years the recording has been more of an assembly of several performances. Does the poor so and so who knits these performances together get a performance royalty? If that person made the wrong choices, it could remove all the life from the recording. More recently some “performances” have only been possible using pitch and time correcting tools, so at what point do we have to start paying a performance royalty to the makers of Auto Tune other such programmes?
If you want to carry on making money from music, then you are going to have to carry on making recordings. If you want a pension scheme, save some of that royalty whilst you have it. More to the point, does Sir Cliff Richard need the money?