March 6, 2021

E.U. Extends Royalty Protection to Music Performers and Producers

BRUSSELS — The European Union narrowly agreed Monday to extend royalty protection for music performers and producers to 70 years, handing ailing record labels and aging pop stars two more decades of income from hits recorded in the 1960s.

The measure had the support of some of the Union’s biggest member states, including France, Italy, Spain and Britain, countries where the recording industry remains an important economic cog.

Major record labels had been trying to get the measure approved for the past two years. In the end, the measure passed with 255 votes, the minimum amount required under E.U. rules in a weighted voted system among the bloc’s 27 member states. There were 76 votes cast against the plan and 14 abstentions.

Losing royalties from the back catalogs of popular bands from past decades had been a grim prospect for major labels, which have been pummeled in recent years by the sharp decline in sales of compact discs as digital downloads — legal and illegal — grow.

The decision ensures that British labels can “compete effectively in a global market,” said Geoff Taylor, the chief executive of B.P.I., an industry group representing record labels in Britain including the four biggest — EMI, Universal Music, Sony Music and Warner.

In the United States, copyright law was revised in 1976 to give recording artists and songwriters “termination rights” by which they could regain control of their work after 35 years. But with musicians and songwriters now moving to assert that control, the provision threatens to leave the four major record companies, which have made billions of dollars from such recordings and songs, out in the cold. A congressman, Representative John Conyers Jr., a Democrat from Michigan, has called for a revision of U.S. copyright law to remove ambiguities in the current statute about who is eligible to reclaim ownership rights to songs and sound recordings.

In Europe, sustained lobbying by musicians, like Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba, also helped to push governments to grant the extension from the current 50 years.

Mr. Ulvaeus said Monday that the decision would ensure that performers “benefit from their performances, at least in their lifetime.” He also expressed relief that he “won’t have to see Abba being used in a TV commercial.”

Paul McGuiness, the manager of the Irish band U2, gave his “particular thanks” to Charlie McCreevy, a former European internal markets commissioner, for supporting the measure.

Mr. McCreevy “was the first political leader to recognize how important this reform would be to artists and used his political capital to drive it up the agenda,” Mr. McGuiness said in a statement.

The E.U. said the measure would come to the rescue of performers who were on the point of losing airplay royalties.

Many “performers generally start their careers young and the current term of protection of 50 years often does not protect their performances for their entire lifetime,” the Union said. “Therefore, some performers face an income gap at the end of their lifetimes.”

But the issue had deeply divided the bloc. Sweden fiercely opposed the new law on the grounds that such generous extensions undermine respect for copyright. Another opponent, Belgium, said the law mainly would benefit the record producers rather than struggling musicians and artists. The Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia also voted against the measure.

A positive outcome for the record labels and rockers was abetted as Finland and Denmark dropped their opposition this year, and by Poland, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the E.U. and backed the measure.

Austria, which had also long opposed the extension, abstained from the vote on the grounds that there were not enough other countries in favor of blocking the law.

But diplomats said abstaining was a way for Austria to continue to show its displeasure, but avoid angering other member states over the issue.

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