Copyright trouble on the net -- an editorial
by Charles Young

Copyrights are supposed to encourage people to create new works: music, art, books, etc. Unfortunately copyright law makes it so difficult and expensive to obtain the rights to perform, record, or sell copyright works, that only large companies have the resources to make those works available. In order to make a profit on CDs, movies, or books; companies must sell several thousand of each thing they publish. As a result, the number of artists whose CDs are widely available is limited. Also the number of songs available is limited. The problem is even more accute for older works.

Older music, books, etc. should be more available in this computer age now more than ever before. Finding who owns the rights to an old recording can be difficult to impossible. It is just not worth the trouble and expense for most items that would have limited sales. Simply copying an old phonograph cylinder, 78 RPM record, or reel-to-reel tape may violate copyright law. Even if you could legally put an old recording on CD, you certainly could not sell it or even give it away without having the rights to it. How would one obtain the rights to a recording from the 1890's? Quoting a Library of Congress web page, author Tim Brooks writes:

"Although other copyrighted works routinely enter the public domain, this is not the case for recorded sound. With the exception of recordings of a few companies whose assets have been abandoned or donated to the public, there are virtually no public domain U.S. sound recordings. This includes many of the very first recordings, which were published as early as the 1890s. The usual allowances for copying or distributing given to older works by federal law under the orphan works clause do not and will not apply to pre-1972 recordings, further impeding public access. Because only the copyright owner can legally make old recordings available, historical recordings are at risk of physical loss as well as of passing, unnoticed, from the nationís aural memory."

Surely Congress could come up with a relatively simple copyright law that protects authors' and performers' rights while encouraging the publishing and sharing of sound recordings and other works. Even people who should know something about copyright law are confused. In 2005, Walgreens in Benton, Arkansas refused to print our daughter's wedding pictures from CD because we had paid a friend to take the pictures. We were forced to obtain a letter from our friend telling Walgreens that we had permission to have the pictures printed. Copyright law should not be so convoluted and complex that a law firm must be consulted before pictures can be printed. Of course some people understand that payment does not equal copyright, and if the pictures are copyright, the person who paid for them might own the copyright.


I wrote the following before Vivendi-Universal shut down mp3 dot com. It seems ironic that mp3 dot com seemed to be overly cautious about copyrights, yet copyright trouble seemed to be their downfall.

It is a bit discouraging that MP3 dot com has not perfected its copyright procedures yet. Several of the songs that I have uploaded or even updated have been rejected because the copyright cops think that the songs violate somebody's copyright. I do not know how MP3 dot com determines if there is a problem. I do know that they have rejected songs that had a similar title but not similar lyrics to a copyright song. They have also rejected songs that may have a performance copyright even though the song was in the public domain. I wonder if the MP3 dot com people are rejecting any song listed in Songfile even though the song may be in the public domain?

A performance copyright is the exclusive right to a certain recording meaning you cannot copy someone else's recording and sell it yourself -- that would be piracy. The performance or arrangement of a public domain song can be copyright, even though the song itself is not. I believe that it is legal for me to record my own version of a public domain song. Some of the public domain songs that have been rejected were written in the 19 century or before.

Songfile lists the wrong "writer" (author) of many old songs. I wonder if the transcriber, publisher, or arranger of public domain songs somehow was erroneously listed as the song writer? An example is the song "In The Garden" written by Charles Miles in the 19th century. Songfile shows the songwriter to be William York. Now what's up with that? I have asked MP3 dot com about this, but have received no reply yet. If you can shed any light on this, or could refer me to a link that explains this discrepancy, please do.

I must give MP3 dot com an E for effort. In the early or mid 1990's, the GEnie online service pulled all Commodore music files due to copyright concerns. They even deleted all the classical music which is all public domain. I cannot imagine who was worried that people would be listening to a simple 3 note instrumental version of a song on a Commodore computer and would not be buying any music. I hope that MP3 dot com keeps trying until they get it right, or until the Congress can pass some modern laws.

When Sony was developing the first home VCR, Disney sued to stop it from being sold in the United States. They thought that it would put their movies out of business. Now probably half of Disney's movie revenue is from videotape and DVD rentals and sales. Sometimes companies just do not know what they are doing when they try to get in the way of progress. Xerox had trouble with their copy machines when they first came out too. The copier has not put anybody out of business that I know about.

Well, maybe one day some people with some common sense will fix the laws and things will be better. And that is my opinion about that. Charles Young chdyoung@gmail.com


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