Compromise Music Modernization Act Will Bring Old Sound Recordings into The Public Domain, Tiptoe Towards Orphan Works Solution

from the some-good-things dept

Earlier this year we wrote about the significant concerns we had with the CLASSICS Act, that sought to create a brand new performance right for pre-1972 sound recordings, requiring various internet platforms to pay for that additional right to stream such music. As we've discussed for years, pre-1972 sound recordings are kind of a mess in the copyright world. That's because they weren't covered by federal copyright law -- but rather a mess of state laws (some statutes, some common law). Historically, none of that included a performance right, but some courts have recently interpreted one to exist (while others have said it doesn't). On top of that, some of those state laws mean that certain works will remain covered by copyright for many decades after they would have gone into the public domain under federal copyright law.

Many people have advocated for "full federalization" of those pre-1972 works, taking them away from those state copyright laws, and putting them on an even playing field with all other copyright-covered works. There is an argument against this, which is that doing so also creates brand new rights for works that are decades old, which clearly goes against the purpose and intent of copyright law (incentivizing the creation of new works for the public), but given what a mess having two (very different) systems entailed, it seemed like full federalization was the most sensible way forward.

Of course, rather than pursue that path, the RIAA pushed through something much worse and totally one-sided. The CLASSICS Act created a new performance right for pre-1972 sound recordings, but left out the federalization part. In other words, the copyright holders would get all of the benefits of this new law, and the public would still be unable to have these recordings go into the public domain for many, many decades. Senator Wyden introduced an alternative bill, the ACCESS Act, which pushed for full federalization.

Over in the House, the CLASSICS Act was unfortunately merged with a separate bill, the Music Modernization Act (which is mostly uncontroversial) and voted through unanimously. However, it hit a stumbling block in the Senate -- leading to negotiations to create a compromise between Wyden's ACCESS Act and the original CLASSICS Act. That compromise has now been released and... it's actually fairly decent. To be clear, this is not how anyone would draw up copyright law from scratch, and there are still bits and pieces that concern me in the bill. But compared to where we were with the CLASSICS Act, this is a pretty big improvement. It does still create this brand new performance right for pre-1972 works, which seems to totally undermine the point of copyright law, but seeing as that was going to happen no matter what under the original CLASSICS Act, the compromise here seems much better -- as it makes sure that even as those works get this new right, they also will move into the public domain much faster than they otherwise would.

The key elements in this compromise bill include full federalization of pre-1972 sound recordings, putting all copyright works under the same system. There is a slightly weird tiered system for gradually moving pre-1972 sound recordings into the public domain where they belong. The new rules set a copyright term of 95 years after the date of publication -- bringing works into the public domain much sooner than they would have been if they remained under state law (where the term could have gone up to 190 years or so). And then there's a set of "transition" periods for works to get them into the public domain:

PRE-1923 RECORDINGS.—In the case of a sound recording first published before January 1, 1923, the transition period described in subparagraph (A)(i)(II) shall end on December 31 of the year that is 3 years after the date of enactment of this section.

1923 - 1946 RECORDINGS.--In the case of sound recordings first published during the period beginning on January 1, 1923, and ending on December 31, 1946, the transition period described in subparagraph (A)(i)(II) shall end on the date that is 5 years after the last day of the period described in paragraph (A)(i)(I).

1947-1956 RECORDINGS.--In the case of sound recordings first published during the period beginning on January 1, 1947, and ending December 31, 1956, the transition period described in subparagraph (A)(i)(II) shall end on the date that is 15 years after the last day of the period described in subparagraph (A)(i)(I).

The really key part here is that first batch. Those are works where they should already be in the public domain under US law, as pre-1923 works are deemed to be in the public domain under federal law. But, since state laws have gone on much longer, we've locked up tons of important early US sound recordings, especially a ton of early jazz recordings that almost no one can hear. Under this law, those works will come into the public domain three years after the law is in place. Some will argue (reasonably!) that this is already too long, and you'd be right (also, that it's weird to give those very old works a new right just for a three year period). But it's better than having to wait until 2067 for them to be freed up entirely.

Now there's a second important idea put into this new bill -- which is a very, very, very light touch "orphan works" proposal. For decades now, plenty of people in the copyright space have fretted over what to do with the orphan works issue. This is an issue created by our own stupid copyright policies, in which, because the law no longer requires registration, there are billions of works where it is unclear who holds the copyright on those works, or even if there's any copyright at all. It's been a problem for many years that can seriously impact our ability to preserve historical culture, among other things.

Of course, every time Congress (and the Copyright Office) suggested proposals to deal with this issue (even bad suggestions and really bad suggestions), some copyright holders (mainly photographers) would freak out, and misleadingly claim that orphan works laws were designed to strip them of their copyright.

So, this new amended bill creates a very minor tiptoe towards an orphan works concept, just with sound recordings and only for "certain noncommercial uses of sound recordings that are not being commercially exploited." This is way, way, way too limited, but it's a start. Under the rules, someone engaged in non-commercial use (and boy, I can't wait to see the litigation fights over what counts as commercial v. non-commercial use...), has to make a "good faith, reasonable search" to see if a work is being commercially exploited. Following that, they have to file a notice with the Copyright Office announcing their intention to use the sound recording, allowing a 90 day period for someone to object. If there are no objections then, the work may be used in such non-commercial projects. This is extremely limited (way too much so), but hopefully will be useful to sites like the Internet Archive and various libraries. It would be nice if it went much further, but considering that no attempt to deal with orphan works has ever gone anywhere, this seems like at least a tiny step in the right direction. At the very least, hopefully it can be used to show that the world doesn't collapse when there is a way to make use of orphan works when the copyright holder cannot be found.

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Filed Under: classics act, copyright, federalization, orphan works, performance right, pre-1972 sound recordings, public domain, sound recordings

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  1. icon
    Ninja (profile), 19 Sep 2018 @ 4:28am

    Cue copymorons mass hysteria and random, unrelated "BUT PIRACY" yells.

    So to summarize you got a ton of works under a Hellish patchwork of eternal copyrights and brought them to an equally bad federal law that at the very least chops the "eternal" out of the equation for the current generations?

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