A Swiftian solution to some of copyright’s problems

Copyright is generally understood to be for the benefit of two groups of people: creators and their audience. Given that modern copyright often acts against the interests of the general public – forbidding even the most innocuous sharing of copyright material online – copyright intermediaries such as publishers, recording companies and film studios typically place great emphasis on how copyright helps artists. As Walled Culture the book spells out in detail (digital versions available free) the facts show otherwise. It is extremely hard for creators in any field to make a decent living from their profession. Mostly, artists are obliged to supplement their income in other ways. In fact, copyright doesn’t even work well for the top artists, particularly in the music world. That’s shown by the experience of one of the biggest stars in the world of music, Taylor Swift, reported here by The Guardian:

Swift is nearing the end of her project to re-record her first six albums – the ones originally made for Big Machine Records – as a putsch to highlight her claim that the originals had been sold out from under her: creative and commercial revenge served up album by album. Her public fight for ownership carried over to her 2018 deal with Republic Records, part of Universal Music Group (UMG), where an immovable condition was her owning her future master recordings and licensing them to the label.

It seems incredible that an artist as successful as Swift should be forced to re-record some of her albums in order to regain full control over them – control she lost because of the way that copyright works, splitting copyright between the written song and its performance (the “master recording”). A Walled Culture post back in 2021 explained that record label contracts typically contain a clause in which the artist grants the label an exclusive and total licence to the master.

Swift’s need to re-record her albums through a massive but ultimately rather pointless project is unfortunate. However, some good seems to be coming of Swift’s determination to control both aspects of her songs – the score and the performance – as other musicians, notably female artists, follow her example:

Olivia Rodrigo made ownership of her own masters a precondition of signing with Geffen Records (also part of UMG) in 2020, citing Swift as a direct inspiration. In 2022, Zara Larsson bought back her recorded music catalogue and set up her own label, Sommer House. And in November 2023, Dua Lipa acquired her publishing from TaP Music Publishing, a division of the management company she left in early 2022.

It’s a trend that has been gaining in importance in recent years, as more musicians realise that they have been exploited by recording companies through the use of copyright, and that they have the power to change that. The Guardian article points out an interesting reason why musicians have an option today that was not available to them in the past:

This recalibration of the rules of engagement between artists and labels is also a result of the democratisation of information about the byzantine world of music contract law. At the turn of the 2000s, music industry information was highly esoteric and typically confined to the pages of trade publications such as Billboard, Music Week and Music & Copyright, or the books of Donald S Passman. Today, industry issues are debated in mainstream media outlets and artists can use social media to air grievances or call out heinous deal terms.

Pervasive use of the Internet means that artists’ fans are more aware of how the recording industry works, and thus better able to adjust their purchasing habits to punish the bad behaviour, and reward the good. One factor driving this is that musicians can communicate directly to their fans through social media and other platforms. They no longer need the marketing departments of big recording companies to do that, which means that the messages to fans are no longer sanitised or censored.

This is another great example of how today’s digital world makes the old business models of the copyright industry redundant and vulnerable. That’s great news, because it is a step on the path to realising that creators – whatever their field – don’t need copyright to thrive, despite today’s dogma that they do. What they require is precisely what innovative artists like Taylor Swift have achieved – full control over all aspects of their own creations – coupled with the Internet’s direct channels to their fans that let them turn that into fair recompense for their hard work.

Featured image of Jonathan Swift based on painting by Charles Jervas.

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