March 1, 2021

Representative John Conyers Wants Copyright Law Revision

“For too long the work of musicians has been used to create enormous profits for record labels, radio stations and others, without fairly distributing these profits to the artists,” said Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, who was chairman of the committee until January. Because “copyrights are a tool to be used by creators to earn a living from their work,” he added, it is important to ensure “a fair marketplace.”

When copyright law was revised in 1976, recording artists and songwriters were granted “termination rights,” which enable them to 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.

As a result the major record labels — Universal, Sony, EMI and Warner — are now fighting the efforts of recording artists and songwriters to invoke those rights. The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the interests of the labels, maintains that most sound recordings are not eligible for termination rights because they are “works for hire,” collective works or compilations created not by independent performers but by musicians who are, in essence, employees of the labels.

With years of costly litigation looming, groups that represent the interests of recording artists and songwriters said they found Mr. Conyers’s remarks encouraging. But given the issue’s legislative history any amendment process in Congress is likely to be long and complicated.

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, whose more than 70,000 members include many recording artists and composers, said it was “deeply appreciative” of Mr. Conyers’s “continued focus in working to ensure that our copyright system recognizes the rights of artists for their creative contributions and which fairly compensates artists for the exploitation of their music.” In a statement the group’s national executive director, Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, said it looked “forward to learning more about any recommendations to enhance the rights of artists as they prepared to reclaim their rights in their musical works, and we are working to ensure that there is an effective system by which musical artists fully benefit from their rights under law.”

But the Republicans are the majority party in the House, and some lawyers and artist managers see them as more friendly to the record labels and other big media companies. For that reason the lawyers and managers have expressed doubts that a bipartisan agreement can be reached on the main issues relating to music copyrights, like defining who qualifies as the author of a work and under what circumstances, if any, a song or sound recording should be considered a work for hire.

“Since I’m going to have to be working with them, I don’t want to tell you they are conservative and corporate oriented,” Mr. Conyers said when asked about the Republican position. “That won’t help. I’ll be going to Lamar Smith after Labor Day to talk to him about this, about getting a little fairness into the entertainment industry,” he said, referring to his Republican successor as the committee’s chairman.

Mr. Smith, of Texas, declined a request for an interview. Instead, his staff issued a general statement in his name, saying that legislation that “stimulates U.S. job growth and furthers the interests of creators, innovators and consumers is a top priority of the Judiciary Committee,” and that Mr. Smith was personally committed to legislation that “protects America’s innovators.”

Those creators and innovators could presumably include both recording artists and songwriters. But Mr. Smith’s staff did not respond to a request to clarify his views or to arrange an interview with Republican staff members on the committee who might be able to explain the party’s position on termination rights and related copyright matters.

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