Stuck in Public Domain’s Waiting Room Without a Magazine

Stuck in Public Domain’s Waiting Room Without a Magazine

While drinking beer with a few friends at a picnic over the holiday weekend, I got into a heated discussion about copyright, of all things (we’re not a Katie/Tom/Brad/Angelina gossip kinda crowd). Another guest who works in theater rights management was telling tales of musical productions that tried to alter the book in some way (either with or without knowledge that it was strictly against the rules)—song order changed, new choreography added, or unsanctioned casting changes made. Many of the anecdotes sounded like great production ideas, though. How about Grease with an all-girl cast? West Side Story restaged to represent present-day gang warfare and culture in L.A. Neither would be possible: Thou can rip off Romeo and Juliet, but thou shalt not mess with West Side Story until it enters the public domain many, many years from now.

I’m a big supporter of sharing intellectual property for mutual benefit and am a cheerleader for the efforts of the folks at Creative Commons, an organization that has worked hard to streamline the challenges of rights management in our digital world for authors who want to share their work more liberally than default copyright law allows. In intellectual property debates, even though I’m on the left side of the battlefield, I like to think I maintain a healthy respect for those who think differently about ownership of ideas. In real life, I definitely respect their legal right to keep their intellectual property out of my creative hands, though it often depresses me when they tell me why this is the route they have chosen. The need to make a living is one thing, but when we’re talking about creative work, the situation is rarely “If I download the Grey Album, I don’t need to buy the Beatles’s White Album or Jay-Z’s Black Album“. More than likely, one fuels the collection of all three.

Still, that’s just one example, and maybe you have a sample case that would push the debate in the other direction. It wouldn’t surprise me. It’s a complex intellectual/philosophical issue that’s made murkier by the legal-ease that shrouds it and the economic demands of living in a capitalist society.

In these theater cases, I understand the need to protect the author’s original intent. After all, you don’t want people buying tickets to Phantom of the Opera expecting Andrew Lloyd’s smash hit and getting some avant-garde mash-up instead. But not allowing the production altogether, as opposed to making clear rules about credit and disclosure seems to be a baby with the bathwater solution. We live in cultural hyper-drive and a new twist or a wink of post-modern irony is often how we digest our world, yet the length of time a creative work is protected from such reinterpretation has only increased over the years. Society being one big, constantly renegotiated contract, are our rules in this matter in the best interest of our collective culture?

The theater rights manager at the party was a “those are the rules, pay what you owe us” sort of guy by profession, and I backed off not wanting to ruin a social event, but for me the whole conversation begged an artistic/intellectual question of growing importance: how much do we lose as a society while we wait for public domain access to creative work?

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4 thoughts on “Stuck in Public Domain’s Waiting Room Without a Magazine

  1. glennfreeman

    Access to Music
    It is ironic how a certain Henry Cowell foundation will offer grants (via AMC) to record his music, yet when one tries to record Cowell’s yet-to-be-recorded works, access to those works is impossible. There is approximately 2 CDs of material composed for violin and piano housed at the Library of Congress in DC which remains unknown due to a single person who controls Henry Cowell’s music. The same is true for Alan Hovhaness. A full CD of music composed for violin|viola and piano has yet to be heard thanks to Hinako Hovhaness. This is an interesting subject which needs to be written about.

  2. altometer

    Molly’s posting was very timely for me, as just last night I had an involved discussion on this subject with a mentor of mine. Though we discussed the idea of publishing jazz arrangements of other works, I can see that the roadblocks (i.e. laws) are similar.

    In my case, I’ve arranged Rodgers & Hammerstein’s My Funny Valentine (a classic of classics) for large jazz ensemble. This particular arrangement has been met favorably by musicians and audiences alike in several cities in the U.S.

    Prior to last night’s conversation I was aware that I am unable to sell copies of this arrangement without explicit permission from the owner of the print license, who isn’t necessarily the owner of the copyright. This much I understood. And this is a law I am sure to obey.

    What I did not realize, however, is that I am also forbidden by law from giving away this music for free (without permission from the print license holder).

    As much as I aim to develop my own voice as a composer, I have always found that *most* potential customers of my music are much more interested in original-sounding arrangements of tunes they already know. Which is fine, however, I have a difficult time getting the originals performed while the arrangements are effectively collecting dust, since I cannot distribute them.

    Though I would most likely be categorized as an emerging composer, I’ve been at it for a while, have had several nice commissions, nice recordings, and even a couple generous fellowship awards from my state arts council. This said, I’d like to get my NAME out there in front of musicians and audiences.

    I had been thinking recently that the way to do this was to just give away copies of my arrangements as freeware (PDFs… please copy and share!). Fortunately, I suppose, last night’s enlightening conversation happened before these grand plans of mine materialized.

    Needless to say, it’s back to the drawing board…

  3. Chris Becker

    I’m not clear on what a “print license” is – and I’m wondering if Altometer is getting some inaccurate advice.

    I have published and recorded an arrangement of John Lee Hooker’s Tupelo Blues for my upcoming CD Saints & Devils. I found out who owns the publishing on Tupelo Blues, called them up, explained what I wanted to do, and we worked out a deal. Most of the publishing for this track is going to the original publisher, and Mr. Hooker shares the songwriting credits (which is very cool). Now this isn’t exactly the same as publishing a score and parts of an arrangement for other bands to play – but I think it’s in the same ball park.

    My suggestion is to contact whoever owns the publishing of My Funny Valentine and explain to them what you need to do. Or call the AMC or ASCAP or BMI for guidance. Don’t give up :)

    P.S. Molly/AMC – no disrespect, but if you’re going to publish editorials addressing copyright issues – I would suggest making sure your readers know who they can contact to clarify some real-life issues like what Altometer describes. Sometimes, these editorials offer confusing viewpoints that are hard to sort out in the real world of writing and recording music.

  4. Chris Becker

    Ah, just found out what a print license is.

    Ownership of the actual physical scores and parts to a piece of music might in fact belong to someone other than the person who owns the publishing copyright on the piece of music in question. Makes sense because there’s money to be made in renting parts for ensembles who want to perform a particular work. If I notated music in my own work and worked with bands or orchestras I would know this (I work mainly in electronic and improvised music).

    I can still say from my own experience with publishers and record labels that asking for permission to use copyrighted work isn’t always a dead end. Sometimes the answer is “no” – but making the effort and building relationships isn’t a bad thing now is it?


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