The Myth of Open Access

A composer friend recently sent me a link to a site called Its creator, Aaron Dunn from Palo Alto, California, was bemoaning the restrictive nature of copyright, which he claimed led to the outrageous situation whereby you couldn’t share a recording of a Beethoven symphony, or use it as the soundtrack to an independent film, even though the composer had been dead for almost 200 years.

Beethoven’s music is indeed long out of copyright, so in this respect the “copyright is inhibiting appreciation” argument is the reddest of herrings. However, someone should have told Aaron that there is also a legal copyright in the sound recording and it’s this right that for very good reason protects the interests of all those involved in the making of that recording.

In the whole copyright or wrong debate, which finds a natural home on the web, the record companies routinely come in for a kicking. However, in the same way that copyright in the work sustains the writers and publishers of music, the sound recording right sustains the recording industry. So as well as the record companies themselves – from the chief executive to the work experience junior – the mortgages and grocery bills of performers, conductors, producers, arrangers, studios, engineers, maintenance staff and musicians all depend on income deriving from the copyright in the sound recording.

This is not evil, it is simple business. If record companies were not able to sell CDs or mp3s, of music both in and out of copyright, all the people involved in the recording would not be able to be paid. If there is no income, the industry collapses. It’s really not rocket science.

Legal protection of the sound recording is not as long as that for the work, although at 95 years in the US and recently extended to 70 years in the UK, it may still be seen as an unjustifiably long time by the open access lobby. Any term is by definition arbitrary, but the case is argued by all sides and parliaments make a decision.

Under the title “Set Music Free”, the no doubt well-meaning Mr Dunn’s solution of making recordings available free of charge (albeit financed by donations from third parties) is essentially to set himself up as charity record company. What’s the point? It’s like asking people to send money in order to buy a stock of shoes and then to give them away to anyone who wants them. What can his motivation be, other than a misguided attempt to punch the copyright industry on the nose?

The open access lobby continually miss the point by arguing that intellectual property (music, literature, photographs) is different from any other kind of property, or more specifically, product. No one has a right to free shoes, or a free car, so why should anyone have a right to free music? Just because it’s much harder to control the transfer of IP doesn’t change the fundamental principle that songwriters and composers, as well as authors, film-makers, photographers etc, make things that they want/need to sell, in order to exist in the world as professionals. The only difference between us and any other manufacturer is that what we make can be broken down into ones and zeros and sent down a phone line.

There is so much nonsense about copyright peddled on the web and it’s sad that people who should know better often fall for it hook, line and sinker. Aaron’s half-knowledge is pretty harmless in the general scheme of things, but  academics such as Professor Lawrence Lessig, whose arguments demonstrate much intellectual rigour, but no understanding of the market dynamics, set a destructive hare running several years ago that those of us on the supply side of the creative industries have been chasing ever since.

Posted: 14:05, 22 August 2012


Air Lyndhurst

Sad to hear that the wonderful Air Lyndhurst is up for sale and more so that despite being offered as a going concern, there’s always the prospect that it might end up as high end residential real estate. The loss of so many iconic recording studios is a great shame and has left the music landscape a much less colourful place. There used to be more than 100 significant studios in London alone and now there are just a handful. I left DJM Studios in Theobalds Road, where I was an engineer, at the end of 1984. The writing was on the wall even then. Dave Harries, who was greatly involved in the building of Air in London and Montserrat once described recording studios as “Temples of Creation”. It is an apt description.

Meanwhile, I visited the new Soundhouse in North Acton this week. I spent many happy days at the Brackenbury Road studios recording childrens songs and also dubbing the audio for the Ivors A/V. They have eight spaces at the new site, all with different colour schemes, and I look forward to going up there for the first proper session.

Posted: 14:25, 16 August 2012