A journey through copyright for sound recordings

Recently I was looking for some music to use for a project a friend of mine is working on. I wanted to either use something public domain or something using a Creative Commons license, and not even try to navigate the waters of “fair use.” Librarians and archivists generally know the scope of US Copyright law. We know that all published works that came out before 1923 are in the public domain. We also know the scope of copyright for new works: 70 years after the death of the author, or 120 or 95 years if a work was created for hire.

However, sound recordings are much more complicated. Federal copyright law did not cover sound recordings until February 15, 1972. When that law was passed, the federal government left the task of determining the copyright status of pre-1972 works to the states. Also in that law, they said that federal copyright law would supercede whatever the states decided on February 15, 2047. (The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 postponed this date until February 15, 2067.)

Wikipedia claims that this means that works created before 1972 are not under copyright. I was able to find folk recordings, including Gene Autry, bluegrass recordings, and a whole host of other things from the 1920s, 30s, and before. However, I did not find anything by any prominent bands. This is most likely due to a ruling by the New York Court of Appeals, which is the highest court for the state of New York. In 2005, Capitol Records sued Naxos, a record distributor from the United Kingdom. Naxos had been digitizing old records from the 1930s and 40s, putting them onto CDs, and selling them in both the UK and the US. The copyright on these records had expired in the UK, and so it was legal for them to sell these CDs there. Some of the records that they digitized were owned by Capitol Records, who claimed that they retained common law copyright protections over those recordings, even though federal copyright law did not apply.

The New York Court of Appeals agreed. In their opinion, they said that “The musical recordings at issue in this case, created before February 15, 1972, are therefore entitled to copyright protection under New York common law until the effective date of federal preemption—February 15, 2067.” While this is currently only law in New York and other states are free to enforce copyright differently, I have the gut feeling that this will be the standard applied everywhere. Wikipedia is getting away with it currently because either no one has noticed or because the owners of the copyright don’t care enough to sue. However, I bet Wikipedia would lose if they were sued. As a result of this case, it seems as though no sound recording can be reliably claimed to be in the public domain until February 15, 2067.

So instead of trying to navigate the world of “public domain” sound recordings, I turned to another source of freely available music: Creative Commons licensed music. There are websites out there that allow artists to post their music under any of the Creative Commons suite of licenses. For example, I got an album by the band Walker Fields from the website Jamendo; I’ve never really explored that website too much, but I’m definitely going to do so more in the future.

I know that the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina has multiple streaming stations available, which stream bluegrass, country, and other old-time music from their collection. I also know that the Wax Cylinder Project at UC Santa Barbara has digitized wax cylinder recordings and made them available under Creative Commons licenses, but these are only two examples.

So my question to you is, if you have sound recordings in your archive, what is your policy for making them available and what is your takedown policy?

A sidelong look into the world of special collections dealers

First of all, if you’re not listening to This American Life, whether or the radio or in podcast form, you should start. But this past week’s episode, entitled Original Recipe, gives us a sidelong glimpse into the mindset of special collections dealers. As should become very obvious, this is about a unique situation that happens very rarely. But I think that, throughout the course of the story, John Reznikoff says things that give you insight into the mindset of dealers more broadly.

Briefly, Reznikoff is a document expert, handwriting expert, and big money dealer of artifacts and documents. In 1993, he was befriended by a man who told him that he had documents proving that John F. Kennedy paid off Marilyn Monroe and that he had ties to the mafia. These documents were verified as true by other experts and sold. They, of course, turned out to be forgeries.

But the part that interests me is more in the set up to the story, before Reznikoff is duped. When he gets a collection of items, whether it be artifacts or documents, his goal is to make as much money as he can off it. For example, he sold President Obama’s first car, a Jeep, but was allowed to strip many of the original parts out first, which he then sold as well. This mindset, applied to cars, is one thing; but when applied to special collections material, it becomes much more of a problem. The items with which Reznikoff is dealing, the artifacts and documents of the rich and the famous, can be sold as individual items because there are people out there willing to pay thousands of dollars to seem closer to someone famous. But through the power of the Internet, more people think that they can make money by chopping up collections and selling them piece by piece. We, as archivists, need to reach out to amateur dealers and try to get them to at least understand where we are coming from and why keeping collections as a whole can be important.

The other half of the episode of This American Life is about the search for the original recipe for Coca-Cola. They talk, briefly, to Coke’s corporate archivist, asking him questions about the recipe for Coke that was found in their archives. I know that they have trade secrets to protect, but their archivist seemed to be more focused on obfuscating information rather than providing access. That may be a byproduct of the mythology that Coke has built around the original recipe, but it still seemed off coming from an archivist.

If you have listened to the episode, what do you think?

Debian releases Squeeze!

For those of you who don’t know, I have run some distribution of Linux on my laptop since 2006 (Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, Ubuntu, Fedora, and currently Debian(in that order)) and I currently run Debian GNU/Linux on the server that runs this blog. Most Linux distributions release every six months to get the latest and greatest software out there to the masses, whereas Debian releases every 18-24 months and is meant to be a rock solid platform for you to build upon. Debian is also completely run by volunteers and has been for 17 years, proving itself to be a rock of the Linux community. I may experiment with other Linux distributions, but I always seem to come back to Debian. On Sunday, Debian released their 6.0 release, nicknamed Squeeze. It shows that a group of dedicated volunteers, now numbering around 1000, can really accomplish something remarkable.

Not only do I use Debian personally, but I know that my library’s IT staff uses a Debian derivative (Ubuntu) to run its servers. That means that all of the great services that the SCRC offers, such as our collections database, our digital archive, our public wiki, and our soon to be released Omeka site all run on free software created by volunteers. That’s not to mention that our new library website is going to be built on Drupal 7 and our new OPAC will have VuFind on top of it. Commercial vendors that provide library services, such as OCLC, Sirsi, and others can provide good services but their prices start to add up. Without free software, libraries and archives wouldn’t be able to provide nearly as many great services that we give to our patrons. With one of the rocks of the free software world coming out with a new release, its a good time to remember how much special collections and archives rely on our IT staff and the solutions they can provide to do remarkable things.