Public Knowledge Attack on CLASSICS Act Typically Unsound

In my last post on this subject, I asked why an organization like Public Knowledge would criticize the CLASSICS Act when there is no apparent downside for consumers if the bill becomes law. That post suggested PK’s motivation is more marketing for the service providers rather than advocating a public interest; but as promised, I will try to kick the tires on the specific law/policy claims being made against this bill.

To do this in a somewhat concise post, though, I have to concede that CLASSICS is a narrowly-tailored amendment to the copyright law, one designed to allow the majority of relevant (i.e. most likely to be played via commercial platforms) pre-1972 recording artists to participate in the current market. In practical terms, that’s what the act will achieve. In a more theoretical/historical context, CLASSICS is not a complete answer to the oddball history of U.S copyright vis-a-vis sound recordings since at least the 1920s.

So, it’s important to keep in mind that some of the criticisms of CLASSICS rely on more than hypothetical circumstances; they rely on alternate histories for the simple reason that the works we’re talking about have never been part of federal copyright protection. To make matters more complicated, the exclusive right addressed in the bill—public performance of sound recordings—was not part of the federal statute until 1995, and only then established for certain types of digital transmissions.

The CLASSICS Act seeks to harmonize some of the inconsistency in the law for the sole purpose of enabling certain, relatively contemporary, owners of sound recordings to share in the digital streaming market. For instance, it’s simply illogical that the author of a hit from 1970 is not entitled to the same royalties as the author of a hit from 1973. To achieve this goal, CLASSICS eliminates the 1972 threshold while leaving the existing terms and limitations intact. Nevertheless, as the bill moves to the Senate, critics are now responding as though it represents a substantial change that will exacerbate faults they already find lamentable in U.S. copyright law.

Doesn’t CLASSICS Extend Terms?

The claim most likely to get the attention of most people is that CLASSICS creates a major term extension for pre-1972 recordings. This usually comes with the eye-popping bullet point that works are being granted 144 years of protection! But the fact that one cannot extend terms which never existed is a point of more than semantic relevance. While it is true that 2067 minus 1923 does equal 144, Public Knowledge’s own post states that all pre-1972 sound recordings, currently under common law copyright, are already federally mandated to terminate on February 15, 2067.

That’s the same termination date called for in the CLASSICS Act. So, regardless of how one feels about copyright terms in general, this bill leaves the current terms in place for this particular class of sound recordings. At the same time, it is not at all clear that these sound recordings presently enjoy a public performance right under common law copyright (see Stephen Carlisle’s posts on the Flo & Eddie case in Florida as an example). As Terry Hart points out in yesterday’s post on Copyhype, “Say, for example, CLASSICS passes this year and goes into effect at the beginning of 2019, that gives pre-72 sound recording artists and owners an effective digital performance right ‘term’ of 48 years (2067-2019=48).”

It’s also worth noting that common law copyright is theoretically perpetual. But without wandering into the marshlands of potential litigation stemming from that legal bugaboo, suffice to say the CLASSICS Act should mollify critics because at least it establishes an expiration date for these works that is decidedly sooner than never.

Why Not Just Federalize All Pre-1972 Sound Recordings?

Public Knowledge’s argument that CLASSICS is “bad law” seems to rest substantially on the premise that it is inadequate in contrast to bringing all pre-72 sound recordings under federal law. This appears reasonable enough on the surface. All recordings “published” before 2/15/1972 would expire 95 years after their publication dates, and we would know what’s protected, what’s in the public domain, and where the expiration dates are, subject to the terms of the 1909 Copyright Act. This would certainly mean that a lot of sound recordings currently slated to fall into the public domain in 2067 would enter the public domain much sooner, BUT…

Although PK is correct that the Copyright Office in 2011 advocated a path to full federalization of pre-1972 sound recordings, that report also outlined the substantial legislative burden involved in migrating, for instance, state law determinations of ownership over to the federal system. Full federalization of these sound recordings is a monumental task that, at best, would be a very long slog in Congress, if it survived at all. While that played out, the copyright status of the sound recordings would not change—they would remain protected until 2067—and the pre-72 artists would continue to enrich the playlists of subscription services without reaping any of the benefits.

Not to be callous, but the process of legislating full federalization of these recordings could easily last longer than the remaining lifespans of many of the artists CLASSICS is designed to compensate. So, there’s a reasonable and moral argument to be made that effecting a narrow change now to support these artists in the current market is worthwhile. In this regard, it doesn’t seem at all reasonable for PK to label CLASSICS “bad law” (because it doesn’t harm anyone) simply because it happens to be a narrow law.

Does CLASSICS Create Uncertainty for Libraries & Archives?

Public Knowledge states …

“Libraries, archives, and researchers are the ones hit hardest by this situation. Initiatives like the Internet Archive’s Great 78 Project, or the Boston Public Library’s sound recording collections, operate under a legal sword of Damocles; they can keep going only at the mercy of common sense and a benevolent (or apathetic) recording industry.”

This statement is about the status quo and not about the CLASSICS Act. So, even to the extent the declaration is true—and that’s a big discussion—CLASSICS neither ameliorates nor aggravates any legal ambiguity for these institutions. Organizations like Public Knowledge and the EFF do this quite often: they attack a new proposal, which might entrench the status quo, by making it sound like a dramatic change backed by the nefarious “industry” in question. (See EFF on copyright in the TPP.)

One could predict that CLASSICS forecloses the possibility of full federalization of pre-72 sound recordings; but one could just as easily argue the opposite—that it may serve as a prelude to full federalization. In either case, the majority of commercially-viable sound recordings targeted for protection by this bill are—almost by definition—outside the sphere of interest where libraries and archives serve the public. Also, libraries and archives are afforded certain exceptions under copyright that are not available to for-profit entities. Both fair use and the carve-outs for libraries under Section 108 are explicitly stated in the CLASSICS Act.

Why Doesn’t CLASSICS Address Termination Rights?

Finally, Public Knowledge rallies general animosity for the recording industry in order to color its criticism that the CLASSICS Act is silent on the issue of termination rights. In simple terms, these are the conditions by which an author/artist terminates the transfer of copyrights to another party like a label or publisher. PK states the following:

“The sad reality is that the RIAA has exponentially more leverage with Congress than artists do, allowing them to dictate the terms of engagement. Legacy musicians thus face an impossible choice: abandon their push for termination rights in exchange for finally receiving the revenue they’re owed; or advocate for good policy at the expense of the potentially life-saving income.”

PK uses the subject of termination rights to emphasize the notoriously abusive contracts employed by record labels. But the fact is that sorting out the termination rights relative to all the pre-1972 state contracts would be just one component of the aforementioned slog to full federalization of these recordings. Public Knowledge makes this sound simpler than it is by alluding to copyrights reverting to the artist after 35 years, but this actually refers to the current statute, which does not govern these sound recordings. For now, the CLASSICS Act divides the royalties between the recording artist(s) and the sound recording owner, no matter what contracts are in place. So, PK’s implication that the bill is only for labels and not for artists is misleading at best.

Underlying all of that, of course, is the fact that Public Knowledge is exclusively hostile to copyright and has a history of making up all kinds of crazy nonsense rather than, say, providing knowledge to the public. In fact, I was struck by their reference to the wisdom of the Copyright Office on federalization of pre-72 sound recordings since is was Public Knowledge who had orchestrated a hatchet job attacking the credibility of the entire USCO and Register Pallante in the Fall of 2016. Ironically, that whole attack was predicated on accusations of “cultural capture,” which is funny because I wonder what psychological condition explains PK’s assault on this particular bit of legislation.

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