Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Our Perpetual Copyright Laws

Back in the 1930's and 40's, a young audio engineer (and jazz fan) named William Savory recorded hundreds of live, over-the-air performances by some of the jazz world's leading performers. To overcome the 3-minute limitation of the 78-RPM record, he recorded at 33-1/3 RPM on acetate and sometimes aluminum disks.

His legendary collection consists of nearly one thousand disks, many of them absolutely unique recordings of live performances.

He was secretive about his collection, allowing only a few close friends to listen. When he died, in 2004, his collection found its way into a museum.

Conserving the Savory Collection

But you'll never be able to hear any of it. Due to our nearly perpetual copyright laws (which Congress has been extending for twenty years, every twenty years or so, in a desperate bid to keep Mickey Mouse from falling into the public domain) the recordings represent such a minefield of copyright claims by performers, composers, arrangers, radio networks, radio stations, music publishers and their heirs, partners, assignees, licensees and holders-in-due-course that nobody will ever be able to untangle them. And if Congress keeps extending the copyright protection of existing works, that will never change.

And the way that U.S. copyright law works, allowing lawsuits for amounts far in excess of the actual damages, the potential claims could be ruinous for anyone foolish enough to attempt to release these recordings.

The Volokh Conspiracy has the legal brief.

[It's interesting that Savory's photo resembles James Stewart. I can imagine him appearing in a mash-up of "It's A Wonderful Life" and "The Conversation" (sure!). Here's how I'd pitch it:

George Bailey and Clarence the Angel have bugged Mr. Potter's office. George takes off the headphones and says, "That miserly old bastard! He had Uncle Billy's money all along! C'mon, Clarence, let's go over to the bank and kill that sumbitch!"

Clarence: "Now, George, we can't do that!"

George: "Why not? He'd kill us if he got the chance!"

---Fade to black, Roll credits]

1 comment:

Ed Rasimus said...

Be careful about the distinction between copyright and the arcane laws about music which is controlled by ASCAP and BMI. While copyright is not all that long-lived, it is relatively easy to grab a small chunk and publish it with attribution. No special permission required. Longer quotation requires copyright holder approval and total reproduction of a written work takes a lot more permissions.

Music, OTOH is almost impossible to snag without a dedicated bloody lawyer. I tried to use a couple of short excerpts from '60s/'70s rock/roll songs in one of my books and finally gave up in frustration trying to get a clearance--and that was simply the words from "We Gotta Get Outta This Place" (Animals) and "Fixin' to Die Rag" (Country Joe & the Fish).

Intellectual property has value just like a painting or a statue or a schematic for an iPhone. Don't seek to confiscate it too early.