Back in 1998, Congress extended the term of copyright for an additional 20 years, preventing certain works from falling into the public domain. Dubbed the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act," the law raised the term of copyright protection in individually owned works to life of the author plus 70 years, and in the case of works owned by corporate entities, to the sooner of 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication. Not everyone was as happy as Walt Disney and the MPAA. And more frowny faces resulted when the legality of copyright extension was upheld by the Supreme Court in Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186 (2003).
History repeats itself. Just before the Beatles first album would have entered the public domain, the European Union announced this week that it extended the copyright term for public performances of recorded music from 50 to 70 years. Said the EU Commissioner for Internal Market and Services "With increasing life expectancy, the previous 50-year protection term was clearly insufficient." This is interesting, given that most performers have deals with record labels whereby the record label, not the performer, reaps the financial benefit of performances. According to the Director of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management at Bournemouth University, billions of euros will be transferred from the public to the music labels. And, of the the small percentage of artists who will gain additional royalties from the extension, most will be "superstar acts."
Perhaps stifling competition "legally" is the record labels' response to the fear that digital innovation will cut profits? Theory to be confirmed when Lady Gaga's albums are ready to hit the public domain. We'll be long gone by then, but her record label will surely still be around.