There is a great divide in popular music that can be traced back to 1972. It’s not the fading of artists like Chuck Berry and the rise of new stars like Michael Jackson. It isn’t even the forced nostalgia of Don McLean bringing us back to the day the music died. Instead, it’s a legal divide, one that strikes to the heart of copyright royalty issues and could have a great impact on streaming music services like Pandora.
See, songs recorded before 1972 are not currently protected under federal copyright, unlike those recorded after that date. This means that Pandora, and other companies like it, do not have to pay royalties for classic tunes from Buddy Holley and pre-jumpsuited Elvis. Of course, these services are already paying a great deal of money for the right to use more recent songs, so any change to the current paradigm would have a huge impact on their cost structures.
That is why a bill proposed by George Holding (R-NC) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) that would require digital streaming services to pay performance royalties on these older songs is such a big deal. The fact that it targets the newer, high-tech services is a bone of contention for industry insiders, who feel that this would exacerbate the divide between traditional over-air radio stations (which would not be required to pay royalties) and the new kids on the block.
It also brings up a larger question of copyright extension and the public domain. Entertainment giants like Disney have fought to extend copyright protection on some of their most popular and lucrative pieces of intellectual property, and musicians and songwriters would certainly love to have a longer period to milk royalties out of their creations before the tunes hit the public domain. The legislation is pending, so it remains to be seen if there is enough support in Congress to support it and open a Pandora’s Box of copyright debate.
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