BROOKE GLADSTONE: A year ago, England's Chancellor of the Exchequer wanted recommendations on how the U.K. should tweak its intellectual property laws, so he commissioned Andrew Gowers, a former editor of The Financial Times.
Last week, Gowers released a 150-page report with the overall message that the intellectual property system in England does not need radical overhaul, and one point in particular that Gowers singled out for not reforming was the recording copyright term. In the U.K., a recording becomes part of the public domain after 50 years, while in the U.S., it takes 95 years for a recording to become public property.
Gowers concluded that in the U.K., 50 years is long enough, but the British recording industry has launched a P.R. campaign to convince lawmakers to extend the copyright term to 95 years.
A full-page ad from Phonographic Performance Limited, which collects royalties on behalf of British musicians and record companies, appeared in The Financial Times the day after the report was released, demanding, quote, "fair play for musician," with 4,500 musicians' signatures.
But, as Stanford professor and blogger Lawrence Lessig pointed out, some of the artists who signed the advertisement won't be collecting royalties no matter how long the copyright term is. They're dead. Copyright terms don't mean much to the deceased, but they mean a lot to those small label owners who re-release great music from all those great musicians, and, ultimately, to the music fans who buy it.
On the Media's Rex Doane has a huge collection of this re-released music, called "reissues," and he has the story.
REX DOANE: The earliest reissue labels helped appease the needs of hard core jazz fiends as far back as the '30s. But the big explosion in reissue activity occurred in the late '60s when dozens of rediscovered folk and blues artists played the festival circuit. Small labels like Arhoolie and Yazoo spurred the revival by re-issuing rare original recordings of blues pioneers such as Blind Boy Fuller and Memphis Minnie.
MEMPHIS MINNIE [SINGING]: I got a big, black cat sittin' in my back door.
REX DOANE: The reissue market evolved quickly. In 1975, the Bear Family label out of Germany began issuing definitive boxed sets of vintage American music. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Bear Family founder Richard Weize.
RICHARD WEIZE: I'm not interested in money. I just want to see a good product out. I would even put out a record if I only know I'm only going to sell a hundred copies, if I find it worthwhile.
REX DOANE: Elaborate Bear Family releases, like their 12-CD Carter Family boxed set, are prized by collectors, but carry a price tag too hefty to lure most casual fans.
RICHARD WEIZE: I don't think about the customer. I want to satisfy me. I don't care about the customer. The customer has to take what I'm presenting.
REX DOANE: While Weize patiently strives to manufacture lavish living monuments to the artists he loves, Giles Petard, of the Classics label in France, has a much more urgent approach. Simply put, Petard wants to reissue the complete recorded works, in chronological order, of all major and minor jazz, blues and R&B artists who ever recorded in America. That includes well-known artists and the hopelessly obscure.
GILES PETARD: To me, this is a very important point, you know? And I think that's the great thing about a series like this, is that you can put out names that normally you would not be able to.
REX DOANE: Names like Little Miss Cornshucks, a surprise bestseller in the Classics series.
LITTLE MISS CORNSHUCKS [SINGING]: Tell me, Papa Treetop, what you try to do to me?
REX DOANE: Unlike high-end reissue labels, like Bear Family, which prefers to lease master tapes for optimum sound quality, Petard dubs directly from the original disks, and only releases material that has fallen into public domain. Since copyright protection of American sound recordings ends after 50 years in Europe, that leaves plenty of material for Petard. Little wonder he has put out over 1,000 CD's to date.
But there is growing resentment in the States over the flood of public domain reissues coming out of Europe.
ELVIS PRESLEY [SINGING]: Train arrives...
REX DOANE: While U.S. label owners might have been able to look the other way when modest-selling material from their catalog was being copied and sold abroad, the unthinkable will soon be happening, when the never-endingly lucrative recordings of early rock and rollers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard turn 50.
John Singleton, president of Sun Entertainment.
JOHN SINGLETON: We consider them legal bootleggers, because you know they had absolutely nothing to do with creating it, and they're throwing back, you know, our creations to us without any compensation to owners of the masters, the record companies or to the artists and, you know, their families.
REX DOANE: Back in 1969, Singleton's father bought the rights to Sun Records, whose catalog includes the works of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, all steady-selling records for generations, now set to go into public domain abroad. Singleton says copyright protection of American sound recordings in Europe should be extended to 95 years, precisely the same period of protection that European recordings enjoy in the U.S.
JOHN SINGLETON: I think our government should, you know, apply some pressure on the European Union to change the laws.
REX DOANE: For a family-run operation like Sun Entertainment, which actively markets its archives, the European incursion is likely to hurt. But the back catalogue, for most of the other early independent labels like Excello and Imperial, have largely been ignored by the media conglomerates that now own them. It's a point not lost on Charlie Lang.
CHARLIE LANG: To me the, the reissue market to the majors is more like a stepchild, you know? They'll throw a little money at it when they have to, when nothing else seems to be working.
REX DOANE: Lang runs the on line mail order business BlueBeatMusic.com, serves both as a retail outlet for hard-to-find reissues and as a one-man blues crusade.
CHARLIE LANG: It's kind of duplicitous for these companies to push for an extension of copyright and not having any intention whatsoever of putting it out. The give-me-mine-now-and-I'm-going-to-keep-it-forever mentality has locked up a lot of American treasures in corporate vaults.
REX DOANE: And they're reticent to turn the keys over to anyone, here or abroad.
JOHN BROVEN: I know independent record companies here in the States who would love to reissue many of the old recordings.
REX DOANE: John Broven has worked on dozens of reissued products for the Ace Record label out of London.
JOHN BROVEN: But when they approach a major label and, and are told that they need to guarantee 25,000 CD sales for a project which is clearly only going to sell, say, 5,000 copies, then that music is just going to lie dormant in the vaults. Nothing is going to happen.
REX DOANE: Despite the reluctance of some major labels to strike reasonable leasing deals and the tug of war over copyright protection, copyright attorney Bob Clarida of Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman says salvation could be on the horizon, or more precisely, on the internet.
ROBERT CLARIDA: If all the record company has to do is digitize an old tape sitting in a vault somewhere, it's very low-cost. So, you know, the very technology that has caused so much of a problem for the record business and the commercial world, I think, is going to make it much, much easier for people to gain access to all sorts of archival work that previously has not been commercially viable.
REX DOANE: The format shift from CD to MP3 is inevitable. But pessimistic music snobs fear there'll be a considerable wait for any musical treasures to emerge again from the back catalog. Some even contend that, after all the countless mergers and staff layoffs, most of the major music corporations don't even know what they've got locked away.
Case in point - a couple of years ago, a small label, that prefers to remain anonymous, got an offer to license a blues track they had just reissued without permission. The offer came from a major label. The track they wanted to lease was something the major already owned. The small label responded accordingly. It took the money.
For On the Media in New York, I'm Rex Doane.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this weeks show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and Mark Phillips, and edited – by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Alicia Rebensdorf and Michael McLaughlin. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.