Simplify Copyrights? Labels Hate the Idea

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Copyright simplification could have monumental implications for the music industry, not just for startups, but also for preservationists, producers, artists, and fans.

The only problem is that some of the most powerful companies in this space absolutely hate the idea.

The latest example involves copyrights surrounding recordings, which enter this byzantine and confusing terrain if the song was recorded before 1972 (at least in the US).

That’s when sound recording copyrights were federalized, and shifted from a mish-mosh of individual state laws.

The confusion is great for big labels and lawyers, but bad for most others.  Which is why the US Copyright Office wants to create a broad-based, federal statute for all recordings, not just those created after 1972.  “We believe that bringing pre-1972 sound recordings into the federal copyright system serves the interests of consistency and certainty, and will assist libraries and archives in carrying out their missions,” Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante stated in a recent proposal.  “There is virtually no public domain in the United States for sound recordings and a 55 year wait before this will change.”

Pallante proposes extending sound copyrights on pre-1972 recordings to 95 years from publication, with everything entering the public domain by 2067.  Simple win, right?  The basic problem is that once recordings enter the public domain, they essentially become useless to recording labels.  “There is all but zero value to a record company in a public domain recording,” the RIAA stated in the report, with A2IM taking a similar stance.

Sounds like a reasonable retort, except that most of the recordings would still be protected under this shift.  And, the remaining recordings aren’t being used, anyway.  “The vast majority of pre-1972 sound recordings are either unpublished… or if published, have ceased their commercial life,” the Copyright Office noted.

Which brings us to the really sad part: valuable recording relics are rotting into oblivion because researchers are scared of getting sued.  “This patchwork of state protection has frustrated many libraries, archives and educational institutions, which are unclear at best whether they are legally permitted to preserve pre-1972 sound recordings, or provide access to them for researchers and scholars,” Pallante said.