Copyright Holders Try To Stop Ravel's 'Bolero' From Entering Public Domain Using Co-Author Trick

from the limitless-sense-of-entitlement dept

At the end of last year, Mike wrote about an attempt to keep the Diary of Anne Frank out of the public domain by adding her father’s name as a co-author. As Techdirt wrote at the time, that seemed to be a pretty clear abuse of the copyright system. But it also offered a dangerous precedent, which has just turned up again in a complicated case involving the French composer Maurice Ravel, and his most famous composition, the hypnotically repetitive ballet score “Bolero.”

Ravel died on December 28, 1937, so you might expect the score to have entered the public domain in 2008, since EU copyright generally lasts 70 years after the death of a creator. But by a quirk of French law, an extra eight years and 120 days is added for musical works published between January 1, 1921, and December 31, 1947 (on account of the Second World War, apparently). Ravel’s Bolero first appeared in 1922 1928, and therefore receives the extra years of copyright, which means that according to French law, it entered the public domain on May 1 this year.

But Bolero has a big problem — actually, a $57 million problem, which is the amount the work is estimated to have generated in royalties since 1960. Naturally, the owners of the copyright were keen to continue receiving that nice flow of money for doing precisely nothing. So they came up with an idea: add a co-author, which would, as with the Diary of Anne Frank case, conveniently extend the copyright, in this case by another 20 years (original in French.)

Fortunately, the French Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music (SACEM), which handles these matters, has decided that adding a co-author was not justified, and that Bolero should indeed enter the public domain (original in French). As a result, you can find the score and performances of Bolero freely available on Wikimedia Commons and elsewhere.

This episode is even more outrageous than it seems, because of who exactly was trying to get the copyright extended. As Yahoo News explains:

Ravel died unmarried and childless in 1937.

His only heir was his brother Edouard, who died in 1960, unleashing a bitter and complex legal battle over the rights which at times has involved Edouard’s nurse and her husband, great-nephews and even a legal director of SACEM.

So the connection of the copyright holders with Ravel was in any case extremely tenuous. Credit to SACEM for rejecting — unanimously — the attempt to use the co-author trick. Sadly, this is unlikely to be the last time we see it deployed given the limitless sense of entitlement displayed by some copyright holders.

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Comments on “Copyright Holders Try To Stop Ravel's 'Bolero' From Entering Public Domain Using Co-Author Trick”

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Carlos Solis (profile) says:

Even so...

…there are still several countries with terms of over life+70 years, and without a rule of the shorter term. Which means that in the best case, Ravel’s Bolero will enter the public domain in 2037!

– Guatemala, Honduras, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, and Mexico (in certain cases) have life+75 years
– Colombia, and Spain (in certain cases) have life+80 years
– Jamaica has life+95 years
– Ivory Coast (or Côte d’Ivoire as they prefer to be called nowadays) has life+99 years
– And finally Mexico (in certain cases) has life+100 years, specifically for authors who died after July 23, 1928 and whose works were released after July 23, 2003.

Add to the fact that the public domain status is renewed only on the January 1st after the Nth aniversary of the death of the author, and the public domain term applies until January 1st, 2037 (which would have been all the way up to 2038 if the work had been released no more than 13 years ago).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Even so...

Copyright is not to protect the author and heirs so they can gain financially. The purpose was to prevent this from happening. It’s just been extended to ridiculous terms.

1. If you can’t state a specific number of years, the term is invalid.
2. If it is over 70 years, the term has expired.
3. Copyrights should expire periodically, with non-automatic renewals.

Anonymous Coward says:

> As a result, you can find the score and performances of Bolero freely available on Wikimedia Commons and elsewhere.

Just to be clear, the performances will likely have their own copyrights, and those don’t expire simply because the copyright on the score did.

The performances on Wikimedia Commons, presumably, have been released by their owners. Others won’t have been.

This one issue has been defused, but it’s still a legal minefield out there, folks. Mind your step.

Anonymous Coward says:

On a semi-related note...

So Prince appears to have died without a will. I would assume he has a sizeable chunk of work left behind. So if he couldn’t be bothered to make a will, was leaving the IP to his heirs really a motivating factor in his career? It would seem to me, that most artists are happy just to provide for themselves, much less for heirs 70 years after death.

Charles Oppenheim (profile) says:

Bolero, and Anne Frank's diary

To be fair, the two cases are not similar. There is a genuine argument that Anne Frank’s father was co-author of the diaries as he extensively edited them – the work we know as her diary is therefore arguably a work of joint authorship. The Bolero case is in no way similar, and good for SACEM for rejecting the attempt.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Bolero, and Anne Frank's diary

“There is a genuine argument that Anne Frank’s father was co-author of the diaries as he extensively edited them – the work we know as her diary is therefore arguably a work of joint authorship.”

Perhaps, although then where does the line get drawn? Does that mean every editor at every publisher gets a co-author credit, or is this something that only applies to post-mortem editing? If I edited Homer’s Odyssey, would I now be a valid credited co-author? What’s the limit?

But, I think the point is that this was never argued until the diary was near copyright expiration. Whether or not it’s a genuine argument, it’s only being done to retain control, and of course money, for other people.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Bolero, and Anne Frank's diary

Assume that’s reasonable: every editor gets a co-author credit, in that case. Every. Editor.

So J.R.R. Tolkien’s work gets Christopher’s name added to the credit (okay, fine, he can have that) but then so does every other author ever. Go on, do it. The resultant mess will probably upend the copyright regime as the royalty payments are spread more thinly…

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