Last summer, we wrote about how the National Jazz Museum had acquired a massive collection of old jazz recordings from the 1930s that most didn't even know existed, and how it was being blocked due to copyright
. The ABA Journal has now done a more in-depth article about the collection
, the copyright issues and the wider problems this represents. It's a really excellent and complete article that touches on a variety of issues from orphan works, state copyright laws pertaining to older sound recordings, copyright extension and the cultural impact of locking up such content:
The collection is, in a word, historic. "It is a wonderful addition to our knowledge of a great period in jazz," says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. And, Morgenstern says, "the sound quality of many of these works is amazing. Some of it is of pristine quality. It is a cultural treasure and should be made widely available."
The question, however, is whether that will happen anytime soon. And if it doesn’t, music fans might be justified in putting the blame on copyright law. "The potential copyright liability that could attach to redistribution of these recordings is so large--and, more importantly, so uncertain--that there may never be a public distribution of the recordings," wrote David G. Post, a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, on the Volokh Conspiracy blog. "Tracking down all the parties who may have a copyright interest in these performances, and therefore an entitlement to royalty payments (or to enjoining their distribution), is a monumental--and quite possibly an impossible--task."
The museum is rushing to digitize the collection (much of which has deteriorated or was destroyed), but the only way to hear it is to make an appointment at the museum. They insist they're going to try to tackle the copyright issues to release the music, but it's clear that's going to be an incredibly difficult task. What's really unfortunate is how all of these works should
be in the public domain, if we just went by what the law said when they were made. Yet, thanks to copyright maximalism, the world and our culture suffers completely unnecessarily.