This note considers corporate ownership of music, literature
and other copyright (sometimes described as 'rights catalogs'
or 'rights libraries') and the activity of rights agents.
It covers -
supports the discussion of intellectual
property elsewhere on this site (including consideration of
publicity rights, aka personality
rights) and the complementary notes on authors' estates
and collective rights administration (aka copyright collecting
Corporate ownership of copyright in works that were created
by individuals (as distinct from created by/for organisations)
is an unsurprising consequence of intellectual property regimes
that treat intellectual property as something that is alienable
and that can thus be traded.
The past fifty years has seen increasing recognition of intellectual
property as a commodity that can be bought and sold by publishers,
financiers and by non-specialist businesses. That recognition
has been reflected in the development of large-scale rights
libraries - in essence investment in creation and commercial
explotation of rights to reproduce (including perform) musical
scores and lyrics, still images, motion pictures and text.
It has also been reflected in an assessment that the true
value of many film studios, record companies and broadcasters
lies in their 'back catalogue' (ie licensing of past productions)
rather than in their production facilities and associated
assets such as cameras, sound stages, recording studios and
One result is that private equity
has aggressively sought to aggregate disparate rights catalogues
by acquiring small publishing companies and buying rights
off individual rights holders (including heirs to the estates
of many 20th century authors). A corollary is that restructuring
of the film and record industries during the past thirty years
has seen leading businesses shed their production facilities
in favour of acquiring historic rights catalogues. That has
been accompanied by accumulation on the part of Corbis
Images, two corporations that have gained dominant positions
as owners (or as agents for the owners) of still and moving
image copyright works.
It has also been accompanied by expressions of concern regarding
'information feudalism', expressed most elegantly in works
such as Peter Drahos' Information Feudalism: Who Owns
the Knowledge Economy (London: Earthscan 2002) that highlight
the concentration of intellectual property in a handful of
Contrary to some alarmist reports, corporate rights libraries
are not a particularly new development.
Publishers of music (scores and lyrics) and literature (fiction,
journalism and technical publications) often acquired all
or some rights from authors - at the time of a work's creation
or thereafter - on terms that may or may not have been equitable.
Several of the major music publishers thus trace their origins
to small publishing houses that predate contemporary copyright
law and through the longevity of their operation have accumulated
major collections of works from creators who are now famous
or who are now obscure.
Film studios (including production groups outside Hollywood)
similarly accumulated major catalogues through film production
or through acquisition of competitors (and hence rights to
their production base) during the bouts of consolidation evident
every generation. The dismantling of the 'Studio System' in
the US during the 1950s and 1960s saw a trade in film rights,
with acquisition by television networks and speculation by
figures such as Kirk Kerkorian. It also saw exploitation of
rights in scientific and other journals by predators such
as Robert Maxwell,
whose move into the mass media was funded by rivers of gold
from technical journals
whose authors surrendered their rights as a condition of publication.
The following ten years saw corporate acquisition of rights
in works by particular authors (eg UK food group Booker-McConnell
bought rights to Agatha Christie's novels and Ian Fleming's
novels as part of its diversification) and music publishing
houses sought to buy - rather than licence - rights from the
heirs of modernist composers. As indicated above, that purchasing
was founded on copyright as something that can be bought/sold
and that typically lasts for the
author's life plus several years (irrespective of whether
the copyright is owned by an individual, by the individual's
family or by another entity such as a corporation).
The trade in rights became more active during the 1980s, marked
by media coverage of deals that saw entrepreneurs such as
Robert Holmes a Court,
Ted Turner and Michael Green
trade existing film libraries - increasingly valuable as a
way of cheaply feeding free to air and pay television - and
individuals such as Michael Jackson pay large sums for rights
to the Beatles song catalogue or other music collections.
That activity foreshadowed more recent takeover by private
equity groups of major record companies such as EMI
(typically followed by outsourcing of production), technical
publishers and other businesses, which were encouraged to
gain the rights held by their smaller competitors.
Points of entry to literature on the valuation of music catalogues
and other rights collections are provided in Valuation
of Intellectual Property & Intangible Assets (New
York: Wiley 2000) by Gordon Smith & Russell Parr, Management
of Intellectual Property (Cheltenham: Elgar 2006) edited
by Derek Bosworth & Elizabeth Webster, Entertainment
Industry Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1998)
by Harold Vogel and Valuing Intellectual Property in Japan,
Britain and the United States (London: Routledge Curzon
2004) edited by Ruth Taplin.