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Bryan Adams Calls For Copyright Reforms in Canada

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Bryan Adams and Billy Joel perform onstage during the 55th consecutive show of Billy Joel's residency at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 23, 2018 in New York City. 

Bryan Adams wants the word “death” replaced with “assignment” when it comes to reversionary rights of copyright. Simple. One word. He called it “a big step.” 

“I’m not really here standing today for myself, as much as I am standing for the young artists of Canada that are coming forward,” he told the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage (CHPC) Tuesday in Ottawa.

The Canadian rock veteran, who has sold some 70 million albums globally over his 40-year-career, was one of two witnesses to speak at the 118th meeting about Remuneration Models for Artists and Creative Industries, chaired by Julie Dabrusin in the House of Commons.    

“I’ve been trying for the past 10 years to get a moment [like this] to be able to tell you about this and it’s quite a simple proposal,” Adams said of his proposed amendment of the Copyright Act S.14 (1).

“The current copyright law, authors and composers who transferred or assigned their copyrights by contract must wait 25 years after death to get them back,” Adams said, emphasizing the word “death.” “So if you write a script or you write a book, if you write a song and you assign your copyright to a company, you have to wait 25 years after you die [pauses] to get it back. I could say it again, but I think twice is enough."

“In comparison,” he continued, “the current USA copyright law was changed in January 1978 and the U.S. Government decided that copyright should revert back to the author and composer upon request 35 years after assignment — so after you’ve given it to a company, or you’ve made a deal for your book or your song, 35 years later it returns to you and you can decide if you want to continue with that company or keep it for yourself.

“So my proposal is we change one word in the copyright section 14.1 — which is from 25 years after death to 25 years after assignment. It’s one word. That’s all we need to do.”

Adams had invited Vanderbilt University Law School’s Daniel J. Gervais to join him as a witness “because he’s an expert in copyright law.” Gervais did so by video conferencing from Nashville, backing the singer’s proposal and adding his own arguments, easily laid out for the Committee, “focusing on creators and those to whom they trust the commercial exploitation of their work.”

He delved into cultural history, about the uneven distribution of talent, and how it needs to be nurtured and developed over time.

He cited Mozart, who started composing as an eight-year-old, but didn’t create anything that we listen to today until he was 21. He cited established authors and songwriters whose work was rejected by publishers, then went on to become hits.

Copyright policy has and continues to have a crucial impact on cultural and economic progress, Gervais stressed, allowing “new creators to be able to make a living by creating new art and more established creators to continue to produce the works that we all enjoy and from which we learn.”

He said, “The ability to transfer and license third parties is essential to the copyright system in Canada and elsewhere in the world.”

Getting to section 14, and the reversion clause, he asked “How long is the reasonable period of commercial exploitation that is necessary to allow a publisher or a producer to recoup investment and make a profit?” “Even the United States,” he pointed out, “which is not the most author-friendly jurisdiction in the world,” added the 35-year reversion provision in the 1976 Copyright in the U.S. (adopted in 1978).

He read a line from the U.S. Congress report that explained the favorable decision: “a provision of this sort is needed because of the unequal bargaining position of authors resulting in part of the impossibility in determining the works value until it has been exploited."

Both Adams and Gervais feel Canada can do better — and make it 25 years. “It’s time to rebalance this relationship between authors and those who exploit their works by contract.”

Three important conditions for reversion that should be adopted, Gervais recommended: “The first is that the reversion should happen only on request of the author; second is that the assignee be given sufficient and advance notice of the author’s intention and third that the public notice be made available and that is a function that could be entrusted to the Copyright Board of Canada, for example.”

From the last page of their proposal, Adams added, “As Daniel said, 25 years is plenty of time for copyright to be exploited by an assignee. Second point was that author and composer can see a further potential financial benefit of their work in their lifetime and reinvest in new creation — and it will happen by having reversion as an incentive. 

“This is the single and probably most efficient subsidy to Canadian creators at no additional cost to tax payers at all,” he added. “And the U.S. industry is benefiting from additional advantages compared to Canada. I’m talking about authors, composers and songwriters are benefiting from the fact that they are getting their copyrights back earlier than Canadians are.”

For the remainder of the hour, the two fielded questions from members of parliament (some of whom spoke French). When the earpiece for the translation wasn’t working initially, Adams quipped: “I’d like to propose that I get my guy to come in and help you guys get this audio equipment worked out.”


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