Bryan Adams Calls for Copyright Reform to End One-Sided Contracts

High profile artist Bryan Adams is joining in on the copyright reform debate. He says record labels shouldn’t be placing young artists in one-sided contracts.

It sounds like a dream come true. A high profile artist is joining the Canadian copyright reform debate. In this case, however, the major record labels probably wished this artist stayed quiet. Bryan Adams is voicing his concerns about the state of copyright. It isn’t about alleged piracy, anti-circumvention laws, or the length of copyright. Instead, Adams focus is on one-sided contracts.

One-sided contracts have plagued artists for decades. It often evokes a rather familiar story. A young budding artist feels that they can take their career to the next level by inking a deal with a major record label. The label flashes a massive wad of cash in exchange for signing on the dotted line. The artist, in turn, gets starry eyed and can’t sign the contract fast enough. Hey, it sure beats making pocket change at the bar, right?

The artist then puts in the time to record their music at the studio. That money starts to dwindle, but hey, think of all that money this will generate! Promotional material is made, then all that’s left is hitting the road to make a name for themselves. The artists music gets played on various radio stations throughout the country. With all of that, the artist announces tour dates and everything seems to be going well.

After the first major tour, the bank accounts start running dry and the credit cards start getting maxed out. Well, we made some bank on the tours and the millions of albums sold should net something, right? Well, according to that contract, there were liabilities that the artist has to shoulder. That big wad of cash that was flashed before the artists eyes? That wasn’t a gift, that was a loan. The album sales only covered part of it so far.

Of course, touring is where the artist makes money, right? After all, there’s the merchandise as well as ticket sales. Well, there isn’t as much money being made by the artist as originally thought. That’s thanks to the infamous 360 degree deal which stipulates that the label gets a cut of both the ticket sales and merchandise on top of it all.

So, confused, the artist researches things only to realize that they are far too late to begin asking questions now. Major record labels going to court to reduce royalty payments to artists. Wait, that’s a thing? Common advice is to hire a lawyer before entering into a contract. A lawyer? Who can afford a lawyer when you’re living paycheck to paycheck before the contract? Heck, the label representative even said that the artist needs to sign now or never. What choice did the artist have?

what are the options now? Produce more music, maybe. Of course, making a second album might make the fans excited. Unfortunately, that costs money. On top of it all, the label recommends spending more time at the studio to give the next set of tracks an extra spit and polish. More costs. On top of it all, the contract stipulates that the artist needs to produce another 6 albums on top of it all before running out the contract. Even after the second album is produced, the debt just keeps piling up. The only option after that is to break the band up because the contract also stipulates that the label retains the rights to the artists music and controls the name.

Stories like the above play out more often then some people would like to admit. In fact, I covered something similar back in 2010 as someone ran the numbers. There are, of course, going to be similarities and differences, but things like this do happen. It seems that Adams has decided to take a stand on this issue. He is proposing that record labels retain the rights to music for 25 years after the signing of the contract. He argues that this should be more than enough time for assignee’s to exploit the work. From Michael Geist:

25 years is plenty of time for copyright to be exploited by an assignee. The second point was that an author or composer can see a further potential financial benefit of their work in their lifetime, and reinvest in new creation. It won’t happen by having reversion. It’s an incentive. This is the single and probably the most efficient subsidy to Canadian creators at no additional costs to the taxpayers at all.

Adams’ pitch opens the door to an important conversation on copyright policy in Canada. First, by calling for a shorter copyright term for reversion in contractual agreements, he reminded policy makers that extending the term of copyright for years after the creator has died does little for them. Indeed, the industry push for copyright term extension of up to 70 years after death does not create new incentives to create or give creators what they need today. If the government is consider amendments to copyright terms, it would do far better to examine shortening the term of copyright reversion as Adams suggests, rather than locking down the public domain by extending general copyright term in a manner that leaves creators with little value or incentive today.

Second, Adams’ concern is fundamentally about the unfair bargaining power that frequently exists between creators and music labels, publishers, or other corporate copyright interests. The reversion approach is one mechanism to address the copyright imbalance, though shortening the term raises its own set of concerns, including the likelihood that publishers and labels will look for other ways to generate revenues from the artists over a shorter period of time. My colleague Professor Jeremy de Beer has identified other mechanisms that could be used to strengthen the bargaining power of artists when confronted with one-sided deals from record labels and publishers.

Third, the problem with copyright and unfair contracts is not limited to one-sided deals with record labels. The interaction between copyright and contracts can create challenges in many areas, including efforts by publishers to limit fair dealing rights through contract, contractual limits on authors to use their own works as they see fit, and the use of contracts and digital locks to leave consumers with few rights when their digital purchases are rendered inaccessible.

Naturally, the major record labels represented by Music Canada hasn’t said anything about this proposal. It is very likely that this is one way many of their labels make money. That is through contracts that give the labels all the control and a large percentage of the money made all the while pushing most of the liabilities onto the artist. Since this seems to be the way things work now for many labels, why give such a sweet arrangement up like that?

While it is unclear whether or not this will change much in the discussion around copyright, as Geist notes, it’s a great reminder of an aspect about the music business that doesn’t get talked about as much as it should. What about the problem with bad contracts? It is, after all, relevant to the copyright debate because this involves the signing away of artists rights to their own music. Additionally, copyright laws cover music contracts quite extensively. So, the discussion of one-sided contracts is a perfectly legitimate concern to raise at this point in time.

At any rate, this is certainly an issue that deserves traction in the copyright debate. Almost no one wants to see artists get screwed over by a bad contract. The 25 year limitation is certainly an interesting way of addressing this problem in the music business.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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