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Intellectual Property

Copyright extension proposed for sound recordings

The federal budget contains a proposed amendment that would extend the current copyright protection of sound recordings, which will primarily have implications for record companies, says Toronto intellectual property lawyer John Simpson.

The federal government’s Economic Action Plan 2015 proposes “to amend the Copyright Act to extend the term of protection of sound recordings and performances from 50 to 70 years following the first release of the sound recording, so that performers and record labels are fairly compensated for the use of their music for an additional 20 years,” states a section of the 528-page plan.

News of the copyright term extension received media coverage in publications like Billboard, with artists, including Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn and Jim Cuddy, applauding the Harper government’s proposal.

“I know that many people think that until this amendment comes into force, songwriters or artists don't have protection for their works for more than 50 years from when they create them,” Simpson tells

“That's just not true. The copyright that applies to a song or a book or any work generally is the entire life of the artist, plus 50 years. And that's not going to change with this proposed amendment,” says Simpson, principal of Shift Law.

He notes that what would change under the government’s proposed amendment is that the copyright protection of sound recordings would increase by 20 years to provide 70 years of protection.

“Copyright of a sound recording — for example, a recording of a Leonard Cohen song — lasts 50 years from the publishing of that recording under the current regime. That copyright belongs to the maker, in other words the record company, it doesn't belong to Leonard Cohen,” he says.

“This proposed 20-year extension would affect some iconic Canadian performance recordings from artists such as Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Ronnie Hawkins — people who were recording 50 years ago.”

What this means, explains Simpson, is that recordings from 50 years ago would be entering into the public domain. As a result, anyone could start their own record label and launch an album that contains a library of iconic Canadian recordings from the 1960s without having to pay royalties to the copyright owners of the sound recordings.

Simpson says this extension would bring Canada in line with other countries — in particular, matching major trading partners such as the United States — which will have implications for reciprocity in other jurisdictions.

He adds that like all things copyright, this proposal has ignited familiar, political and ideological debate.

“Typically the way the argument goes is the anti-copyright camp states there's no evidence that this will increase creation of works, which is one of the fundamental goals of copyright protection. They’ll say it’s going to hurt consumers because we're going to have to pay millions of dollars more for 50-year-old Leonard Cohen recordings, than we otherwise would if it's in the public domain,” Simpson says.

"The arguments from the other side is that this is a great thing. It's going to spur creation and it's going to improve quality, because record companies are going to put more investment into sound recordings now that they have 70 years of protection,” he says.

Simpson says while this proposed amendment will benefit record companies more than artists themselves, it will likely benefit both.

“A lot of artists make recordings in their 20s, and so with current life expectancies, there's a good chance many of them will still be alive when, under the current regime, the copyright of those recordings expire. By extending it to 70 years, it's going to cover them for life,” he says.

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