Monday, December 15, 2008

Andrew Gowers: Andy Burnham is out of touch with reality

It's not quite throwing shoes at the president, but there's no respect at all in Andrew Gowers' assessment of Andy Burnham's sudden quavering on copyright extension.

Gowers, of course, wrote the original report for the Department of Culture Media And Sport, recommending that fifty years is plenty long enough for a recording to be out of the public domain. He's not impressed with Burnham's decision to start moving towards copyright extension:

There was, he said, “a moral case” for performers – who often do their best recorded work in their 20s and 30s – to benefit from it throughout their lifetime. The government would therefore consider extending copyright for recordings to 70 years from the present 50.

As political speeches go, this is pretty silly. A moral case? You might just as well say sportspeople have a moral case to a pension at 30.

Copyright is an economic instrument, not a moral one, and if you consider the economic arguments – as I did two years ago at the request of Gordon Brown – you will find that they do not stack up. All the respectable research shows that copyright extension has high costs to the public and negligible benefits for the creative community.

Burnham's suggestion that, somehow, extending copyright for longer might make the world a more creative place is swiftly despatched:
Twenty years’ extra earning power in 50 years’ time does nothing to put more money in the pockets of struggling performers now: two thirds of lifetime income from an average compact disc comes in the first six years after release.

And it will not alter the incentives for creation one jot. As Dave Rowntree, Blur’s drummer, told my review: “I have never heard of a single band deciding not to record a song because it will fall out of copyright in only 50 years. The idea is laughable.”

Rowntree, of course, is not just the drummer from Blur, he's also a member of Burnham's party and keen to enter Parliament at the next election.
There are two broader messages. First, to music companies: you have moved beyond trying to close the internet down as a distribution channel, but you have still not done enough to exploit the swirl of creative and commercial opportunities unleashed by the world of social networks and web 2.0. Please focus on innovation, not on trying to eke more rent from the successes of yesteryear.

Second, to policymakers: many of you are debating how government can support business in these challenging times, and that is fine. But you would do well to pick the targets for assistance and the instruments you use with care. Get it wrong, and you will end up looking silly and out of touch like Mr Burnham.

I think I might be a little bit in love with Andrew Gowers.

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