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Japan Appears Less Adamant on Copyright Issue With U.S.

Trade: Government officials are considering extending protection for musical recordings back 50 years.


WASHINGTON — Japanese officials appeared Tuesday to be giving ground on a major copyright dispute with the United States, saying their government is considering extending protection of recordings as far back as 1946.

The Clinton administration announced Feb. 9 that it was seeking a resolution by the World Trade Organization of its complaint that Japan was misinterpreting international trade agreements to allow piracy of recordings made between 1946 and 1971.

The Japanese Embassy portrayed the issue as not yet settled, but a senior official suggested that the Japanese government was relaxing its earlier adamant opposition to extending copyright protection to any recordings made before 1971.

"We still think the interpretation [of international copyright provisions] that we explained to the United States is the right one," said economic counselor Yoichi Otabe. But he said the issue is under discussion in the government and that the existing policy could be reversed to make the protection "retroactive to 50 years."

In comments in Los Angeles, Kunihiko Saito, the new Japanese ambassador to the United States, said such a decision would be consistent with comments made by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto after his visit with President Clinton on Friday evening in Santa Monica.

At that time, Hashimoto said he "intended to . . . improve the situation so Japan would have a law consistent with its international status as an industrialized country," Saito said. That would presumably mean a 50-year copyright provision in line with U.S. and European laws.

Reports from Tokyo that the dispute had been resolved, which turned out to be premature, brought a cheer from Jay Berman, chief executive of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, who said, "I'm certain if Elvis were around today, he'd be very happy as well."

In Tokyo, Naoko Ichiyama, an official at the copyright division of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, was quoted by Associated Press as saying the government wants to revise Japanese laws to protect recordings for the last 50 years. She said the agency is drafting legislation for submission to Parliament next fall that would accomplish this.

Japan has alleged that the copyright provision of the global trade agreement reached in 1993 gives it discretion to determine how far back it would extend its copyright protection for audio recordings, and it set the date at 1971.

Thus, under Japan's interpretation, a wide range of music, from the works of Bobby Darin to the Beatles to the Doors, can be copied and sold with no royalties to the artists or their estates. Pirated Beatles compact discs are available in Tokyo for $5, while officially licensed CDs cost $29.

But there is another issue at stake besides financial rewards, as significant as they may be, said folk singer Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary.

Speaking by phone from a New York taxi, Yarrow said it is "the artistic integrity of the work, the prerogative of the artist to control the way it is produced in a film or commercial" that is at issue as well.

Officials in the office of U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor said he will have no comment until more information is available from Tokyo.

Times staff writer Evelyn Iritani in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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