Last week the Gowers Report into intellectual property copyright was published and you could be forgiven for thinking it was all about old records. Many rich old rockers have come out of the woodwork to protest that they might lose the royalties from their old recordings.
Cliff Richard has been banging on for months how unfair it is that his royalties from Living Doll will soon stop. With Gowers deciding that 50 years was quite long enough for recording copyright, many others have joined his campaign. So we've been treated to Katie Melua on the Today programme giving us the full force of her intellect and years of life experience. Even Bono has taken time out his busy schedule (of lecturing us on how we should give more to the poor while simultaneously moving his money into tax havens) to tell us how he needs more protection.
Fun though it is to watch the undeserving rich squirm, The Gowers Report has something of interest for film fans too: namely, what to do about orphan works.
Orphan works are those which are probably still in copyright but the copyright owner can't be identified or traced. Currently in Britain, film copyright lasts until seventy years after the last of the principals involved in its making dies. These principals are the director, writers and composers of any music. A film might have been made by a small company which has long since ceased trading and it's impossible to work out who now owns the residual assets, but nevertheless chances are it's still in copyright.
Such a film is held in limbo. No one can exploit it or even show it without the permission of the copyright holder. The National Film and Television Archive can't even copy it onto a more secure medium in order to preserve the work.
The practical effect of the current law is that it denies us access to our cinematic heritage just in case some irate copyright holder pops up to complain that his rights have been violated. No small DVD company is going to risk a business-destroying lawsuit to bring us some minor classic. So films just rot in the archive unseen.
Gowers' solution to the problem is simple. If the owner can't be traced after an exhaustive search, then the work can be exploited. If the owner then turns up, he is entitled to a fair royalty but can't claim damages. It's a sensible proposal that should be supported. Don't let it get buried by the whines of the rock aristocracy.
Link to The Gowers Report