Nothing Fake About the End of the Copyright Extension

by Dan Daley • in
  • February 2019
  • Last Word
• Created: February 18, 2019

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The insouciance of the wealthy in the Trump era evokes the la-dee-da of Gatsby, Tom, Daisy, and Myrtle in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the excesses of American lives in the 1920s. And thanks to the expiration on January 1 of the last of the extensions of U.S. copyright law, expect to see The Great Gatsby invoked liberally in versions satirical and otherwise in the near future. That’s because Gatsby and thousands of other works of art created after 1922 will loose the bonds of their Disney-extended copyright enclosures and fall into a long-awaited public domain.

But while Mickey Mouse – whose imminent loss of copyright protection 60 years after his first appearance in the 1928 cartoon “Steamboat Willie” is what prompted massive lobbying efforts by the growing content cartels of the late 20th century – may be feeling more nervous than usual about now, what the lapse of the last of those copyright extensions (known as the Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension Act) means for music and sheet-music publishing are equally momentous.

What used to lay furtively between the photocopied covers of the “fake” books that fueled wedding bands for decades are about to have their own lucrative coming-out parties over the next several decades.

The first batch of songs may have been hits during Warren Harding’s administration – some of the biggies then were “The Charleston”, “Who’s Sorry Now?” and “Yes! We Have No Bananas” – but they represent the vanguard of what will be thousands of popular songs that will become available unshackled by royalties. The expiration of copyrights will also allow those songs to be reinterpreted and reinvented at their very DNA level, something that their creators’ successors usually strictly prohibited.

All this bodes well for the sheet-music publishing business. “For those that [enter the public domain], we will look at new ways of using the songs in print,” Jeff Schroedl, EVP at Hal Leonard Music, told me, adding that they expect to leverage a dozen or so “really meaningful songs” per year. “We might use a song in an educational method, choral octavo, or any number of printed formats.”

Music publishing has come to rely heavily on audio and video content, for educational and other applications, so it’s worth pointing out that this musical liberation is limited to print iterations, not the recordings of those songs. Those are covered under another type of copyright known as “sound recording” or SR. Thus, Connie Francis’s version of “Who’s Sorry Now?” remains under copyright protection, along with thousands of other recordings made before 1972 (when that copyright was covered by state rather than federal law), and if their SR copyrights were renewed, they may stay that way until at least 2067.

But for the sheet-music industry, this expiration of copyright will create a welcome windfall, which is exactly what the Founding Fathers (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, not Les Paul and Leo Fender) intended when the First Congress implemented the copyright provision of the U.S. Constitution in 1790. Copyright was a set period of time in which inventors and artisans could exploit their creations, after which those creations were meant to become available for others to further creatively contort, in the process inventing new things that benefited more people. Unfortunately, in the era of corporate content monopolies like Disney, Comcast, and more recently Apple and Google, that ultimate purpose for copyright was subverted, through constant extensions achieved via intensive lobbying, large and targeted campaign contributions, and flat-out corruption. For a very long time, money talked, and most of us were all the poorer for it. Now, and very much through the channels of MI retail, we’re about to see what the power of music really is.

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