Master songwriter Bob Dylan’s latest release looks like an invitation to steal. The cover of the 86-track compilation is a photograph of worn paper, like the surface of an old file folder. On the front is scribbled in marker: Bob Dylan: The Copyright Extension Collection Vol. 1. It may put the viewer in mind of System of a Down’s Steal This Album!, but theft is the last thing on Sony’s mind — the compilation is meant as a tactic to maintain copyright control of the music amidst Europe’s shifting public domain laws.
The Copyright Extension Collection publishes 86 previously unreleased studio outtakes and live recordings from 1962–63, but there are only 100 copies of the four-CD set in existence. Why the limited run? Well, the album isn’t exactly for listeners. Under current European copyright law, music is protected for just 50 years, compared to 70 years after the death of the author for work published after 1978 in the United States. With a law passed in 2011 to be put into action in 2014, however, the term in Europe will be extended to 70 years.
The catch is that the European copyright extension is use-it-or-lose-it. Music must be published before the 50-year term expires, or it won’t get the extra 20 years. In regards to the unreleased Dylan tracks, that means that if the label hadn’t published them, their copyright term would end 50 years after their creation, and Dylan himself would be eligible to claim copyright. The new album, produced only in Germany, France, Sweden, and Britain, ensures that Sony will control the unreleased tracks well into the future.
It’s not just the artists taking back copyright that labels are worried about. The publication is a preventative measure: smaller European labels have been releasing compilations of music that has just gone out of copyright and into the public domain, undercutting the labels that owned it. This open-sourcing of the music industry is bad for major labels that bank on having a monopoly on selling the music of their big stars. When a work passes into the public domain, anyone can use or republish it.
Artworks follow the same rules as music in the United States — they’re copyrighted until 70 years after the author’s death. But then artwork, unlike music, is difficult to republish. It’s not about fighting replicas of the original work but rather managing how and where the image of a work is reproduced. Wikipaintings, to provide hundreds of examples, collects many images that have passed out of copyright protection. With the internet, controlling how the image of a work gets distributed becomes harder and harder, just as it has been for the music industry trying to control distribution — hence the copyright ploy.
Funnily enough, Dylan’s The Copyright Extension Collection Vol. 1 is already available on certain bittorrent download sites, so while the music may be legally protected, functionally, it’s still free for the taking.