The classics live forever

A record player to play the classics on vinyl.This summer, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Jerry Nadler (D-NY) introduced H.R. 3301, the “Compensating Legacy Artists for their Songs, Service, and Important Contributions to Society Act,” also known as the CLASSICS Act (impressive acronym!).

Music librarians have been talking about pre-1972 sound recordings for some time. A quirk in U.S. copyright law, sound recordings were not awarded copyright protection until 1971. Instead, they were protected by common law, which varied from state to state. This made it difficult to know if and how pre-1972 recordings could be used by libraries. Did federal copyright exceptions apply, for instance?

In 2010, the U.S. Copyright Office conducted “a study on the desirability of and means for bringing pre-1972 sound recordings into the federal copyright regime.” ALA and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) argued against federalization because statutory damages for infringement would skyrocket under federal law with no guarantee that robust library exceptions for preservation, lending and public performance would be included. The Copyright Office report (which is one of my favorites) ultimately decided that pre-1972 should be federalized. They also recommended a term of copyright 95 years from publication or 120 years if the work had not been published prior to the effective date of the legislation, if enacted.

The CLASSICS Act, however, differs on copyright term. The Library Copyright Alliance noted in a letter that sound recordings published before 1972 would be protected until February 15, 2067. Why not 95 years from the date of publication as recommended by the Copyright Office? Under this legislation, sound recordings could be protected for 137 years, even more if the sound recording was particularly old. Ironically, it is the oldest sound recordings that are most at risk—and the ones libraries want to preserve—so one wonders what is the public policy justification for making sound recordings protected by copyright longer than any other protected work. (There is none.) My guess is that the CLASSICS Act tried to make all stakeholders happy, including the heirs of famous composers who were particularly vocal arguing for the extension of copyright term protection in 2002.

There is bound to be further discussion among the players if the legislation moves forward. But at this point, the heirs of dead composers who wrote the classics can anticipate that their cash cow will live a longer life than previously expected.

The classics truly are timeless.

About Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the Director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Office for Information Technology Policy. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books and other public policy issues. She has a MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a MA in media arts from the University of Arizona. She can be reached via e-mail at crussell@alawash.org.

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