IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Copyright clock ticking on Elvis hits

Elvis Presley's "That's All Right" may soon fall into the public domain in Europe.
/ Source: Billboard

Fifty years after it was first released in the United States, Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right” is a hit in Great Britain.

The single entered the British charts last week at No. 3. But for BMG, the company releasing the track, the celebration might be short-lived.

If there are no changes in European copyright law, the track will fall into public domain Jan. 1, 2005. Anyone will be able to release it without paying royalties to the owners of the master or the performer’s heirs. BMG will start losing a significant piece of its catalog income in Europe.

As “That’s All Right” is being hailed by some as the beginning of rock ’n’ roll, the implications are that every year after 2005, more recordings that defined the genre will fall into public domain.

In the United States, BMG will continue to own the rights to the recording. Under the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, sound recordings are protected for 95 years from the day of recording in the United States -- for post-1976 recordings, coverage is the artist’s life plus 70 years.

In most of the European Union, the duration is 50 years after the first release of a sound recording.

The Elvis case illustrates the importance of the issue for record companies in Europe. It also highlights the discrepancy between Europe and the United States.

Wakeup call“I regard this week’s anniversary as a wakeup call and a call to arms to step up a gear or two in our campaign to lobby for a similar term in the EU,” said Peter Jamieson, executive chairman of British Phonograph Industry, in a recent speech.

Jamieson added, “The end of the sound recording copyright on the explosion of British popular music in the late ’50s and ’60s, not just the Beatles, but many other British artists, is only a short period away. If nothing is done they will suffer loss of income not just for their sales in the U.K. but their sales across the globe.”

Many recordings from the ’50s and the ’60s will start falling into public domain in the coming years.

Bruce Welch is bass guitarist with the Shadows, originally the backing group for Cliff Richard. Richard’s and the Shadows’ copyrights will start to expire when they hit the 50-year mark in 2009.

“It’s scary,” Welch said during a 37-date sold-out tour of the United Kingdom. “I only became aware of the situation last year ... Our stuff is still selling, and there’s about 250 various compilation albums out there worldwide. I’d like the period extended as soon as possible, and 95 years sounds good to me.”

Against this background, it is not surprising that the extension of the term of duration of recording rights is the music industry’s main priority on the legislative agenda in Europe.

The EU is reviewing its past directives on intellectual property, notably the EU Term of Protection directive. With this in mind, trade body the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry last year asked the European Commission for an extension of Term of Protection for producers and artists with the goal of ending the discrepancy between the United States and the EU.

The IFPI has started a campaign to raise awareness among policy makers and legislators on the issue. It targets EU member states, the EC and the Parliament.

“We are using any opportunity we have to highlight the issue during meetings with the commission and MEPs members of the European parliament,” said Brussels-based IFPI senior communications executive Francine Cunningham.