Why Ottawa wanted songwriters to earn more than 2 cents a song

Canadian songwriters were singing a happy tune when the Canadian government proposed a change to copyright law in 1987 that would mean they earned more.

Copyright law written in 1924 was due for an overhaul in 1987

More money for musicians

35 years ago
Duration 1:57
A change in copyright law could alter how musicians split revenues with publishers in 1987.

Canadian songwriters were singing a happy tune when the Canadian government proposed a change to copyright law that would mean they earned more. 

On May 27, 1987, CBC's The National brought viewers a report on an update that was being proposed by the Brian Mulroney-led PC government.

"After more than 60 years, Canadian songwriters are going to get a bigger break on their royalties," said Sheldon Turcott, who was hosting the news broadcast that night. 

When the law had come into effect in 1924, songwriters and music publishers split the proceeds of each copy of a song sold. Those proceeds had remained stuck at two cents per copy ever since.

A welcome raise

Songwriter Fergus Hambleton welcomed any improvement in the system for paying musicians for their efforts. (The National/CBC Archives)

Songwriter Fergus Hambleton stood to gain from the overhaul to copyright law.

"My life was full and enjoyable, but not necessarily rich," said Hambleton, who had been writing songs for 20 years, according to reporter Allen Garr.

Hambleton and his band had a new album coming out, and the new legislation "should make quite a difference to us," he said.

For each copy of a song that sold under the existing law, Hambleton and his publisher each took a penny.

Lowest royalty anywhere

Classical guitarist Liona Boyd welcomed the changes to the Copyright Act, which would also affect earnings for other types of artists including choreographers and software writers. (The National/CBC Archives)

Canada's royalty rate of two cents a song was the lowest in the world; according to the Globe and Mail at the time, the rate was five cents in the United States.

"There has been a lot of pressure to redress that kind of circumstance," said Canada's minister of communications, Flora MacDonald, when announcing the pending legislation at a news conference.

Some of that pressure came in the form of a lapel button with the slogan "2¢ Too Long," worn by a music industry representative.

With the two-cent royalty scrapped, fees "will be negotiated with record companies," explained Garr.

The musicians present said the change would be welcomed by songwriters.

"We really want to develop a strong cultural, artistic community [of] musicians who don't have to leave," said classical guitarist Liona Boyd.

Songwriter Eddie Schwartz said the change would motivate Canadian songwriters to write songs for Canadians rather than seek success in other markets.

"Right now, if you say 'I'm going to write for my fellow Canadians,' you're in serious trouble financially," he said.

In March 1989, the Globe and Mail reported that songwriters and publishers had successfully negotiated with record companies to receive a rate of five and one-quarter cents per song sold.

A wearable button argued that the royalty of two cents per song had been in place for too long. (The National/CBC Archives)

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now