Skip to comments.Companies in US Sing Blues as Europe Reprises 50s Hits-Labels Fight Copyright Expiration In Europe
Posted on 01/03/2003 3:45:25 PM PST by weegee
European copyright protection is expiring on a collector's trove of 1950's jazz, opera and early rock 'n' roll albums, forcing major American record companies to consider deals with bootleg labels and demand new customs barriers.
Already reeling from a stagnant economy and the illegal but widespread downloading of copyrighted music from the Internet, the recording companies will now face a perfectly legal influx of European recordings of popular works.
Copyright protection lasts only 50 years in European Union countries, compared with 95 years in the United States, even if the recordings were originally made and released in America. So recordings made in the early- to mid-1950's by figures like Maria Callas, Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald are entering the public domain in Europe, opening the way for any European recording company to release albums that had been owned exclusively by particular labels.
Although the distribution of such albums would be limited to Europe in theory, record-store chains and specialty outlets in the United States routinely stock foreign imports.
Expiring copyrights could mean much cheaper recordings for music lovers, but they do not bode well for major record companies. (These copyrights apply to only the recordings, not the music recorded.) The expected crush of material entering the public domain has already sent one giant company, EMI Classics, into a shotgun marriage with a renegade label that it had long tried to shut down to protect its lucrative Callas discography. The influx also has the American record industry talking about erecting a customs barrier.
"The import of those products would be an act of piracy," said Neil Turkewitz, the executive vice president international of the Recording Industry Association of America, which has strongly advocated for copyright protections. "The industry is regretful that these absolutely piratical products are being released."
The industry association is trying to persuade European Union countries to extend copyright terms. Meanwhile, Mr. Turkewitz said, "we will try to get these products blocked," arguing that customs agents "have the authority to seize these European recordings even in the absence of an injunction brought by the copyright owners."
Expiring copyrights have already led to voluminous European reissues of such historically important artists as the violinist Jascha Heifetz and the jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. But the recordings of the 50's are viewed as being of another order.
That was the era when recording techniques took a quantum leap and when the long-playing record came into its own and was embraced by the public. Even monaural records from the period, before stereophonic sound, are prized today by classical and jazz audiophiles. Artistically, the decade coincided with the golden years of opera legends like Renata Tebaldi; the birth of rock heralded by recordings of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Presley; and enormous outbursts of creativity from seminal jazz figures like Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. "That decade of recording transformed music and how the public consumes music," Mr. Turkewitz said.
That was also the great decade of Callas, who was under exclusive contract to EMI. The looming expiration of copyright on EMI's extensive Callas selections compelled that London-based company to form an alliance with a former enemy.
EMI Classics (formerly Angel Records) has been the official keeper of the Callas discography since 1953, when Callas, the Greek soprano, was 29 and made her first recordings for the company. Over the years, EMI has contended with independent labels that released unauthorized Callas recordings, mostly taken from pirated live performances. In the late 1990's, the bane of EMI's existence was a Milan-based independent called Diva, the largest producer of the unofficial recordings. (A lawyer for Diva, Kriton Metaxopoulos, said that Diva never released Callas recordings without the approval of her heirs.)
But last year, with the support of the Callas estate in Athens, EMI made a deal with Diva, which two years ago reconstituted itself as Marcal Records (for Maria Callas) and moved its offices to the Virgin Islands for tax purposes. In November EMI released a new batch of Callas recordings, including four complete live operas and five CD's of live concerts and rehearsals. The source for these was Marcal.
The strategy would seem to be, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Richard Lyttelton, president of classics and jazz for EMI Recorded Music, concedes as much.
"For many years EMI was in opposition to Diva," Mr. Lyttelton said in a recent interview from London. "But there has been an irresistible pull for us to work together." With this deal, as Mr. Lyttelton explained, EMI "wanted to try to legitimize the market" for these live Callas recordings "rather than try to suppress it."
The company hopes that its unconventional deal with Diva may prove to be an indirect way to maintain dominance in the Callas market, which has been crucial to EMI's artistic legacy and its bottom line. Callas recordings, most of them made between 1953 and 1960, account for about 5 percent of sales for EMI's classical division in a typical year, more than for any artist on that division's current roster, said Mark Forlow, vice president of EMI Classics. "It's amazing," Mr. Forlow said. "Those records just keep selling."
In 1997, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Callas's death at 53, EMI issued the first of three installments of its complete Callas Collection, which included 59 releases, including 31 complete operas, all impressively remastered, intelligently packaged and rich with program notes.
With its new releases, EMI has issued live Callas performances that it was trying to suppress not so long ago, banking that its quality presentation will draw Callas fans and keep them away from cheaper choices. As a further inducement, the new EMI releases are being sold at mid-price.
This strategy has been tried for years by specialty labels like Mosaic Records, a reissue company that releases critically praised boxed sets of classic jazz recordings. Mosaic recently released a seven-CD set of recordings by Beiderbecke, who died in 1931. But cheap competition from European labels has hurt the profitability of such projects, said Michael Cuscuna, Mosaic's president.
"With the Beiderbecke set, we went to the original metal discs and did the best possible sound transfers," he said. "But a handful of European companies have put out this stuff just dumped off the original 78's. That the recording exists in such an inferior state hurts the music." Mr. Cuscuna said that some European labels simply wait for a reissue to come out in the United States, then copy it and appropriate the photographs. "Yet, consumers still go for the cheaper product," he said. "It's discouraging. We've got to get the major labels to take a stand."
Consumer advocates and champions of access to creative products see many copyright protections as too lengthy, unfair to the public and ultimately stifling to creativity. "When works enter the public domain, the consequence is extraordinary variety and lower costs," said Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School. Professor Lessig appeared before the United States Supreme Court to challenge a 1998 law that extended copyright protection by 20 years, and a decision could come from the court as early as this month.
The Callas recordings, for example, "will be taken and put into a million different content spheres," he said. "They will be encouraged and sold in ways not done now."
This is all the more true because of the Internet, Professor Lessig added. Once copyrighted works enter the public domain, he said, "a wide range of copies high quality and low will quickly be available, always and for free." Unlike many record companies, he considers this beneficial. "People ask, `How could you ever compete with free?' " he said. "Think Perrier or Poland Spring."
According to Mr. Turkewitz, it is illegal under American copyright law to download material protected in the United States regardless of the legal status of that material in another country. Still, the computer file-sharing programs that are cropping up everywhere make this law difficult to enforce.
Defenders of extended copyright terms, like Mr. Turkewitz, argue that, if anything, American laws are still too lax and that the European laws are woefully inadequate.
"The public sees icons like Mickey Mouse and thinks that the companies must by now have made their money," he said. But, he added, 9 out of 10 sound recordings lose money. "Very few materials wind up generating the revenues that sustain an entire system," he said. "The amount of money put back into production by the record companies is enormous. It's extremely risk-intensive."
One example of what EMI faces by the end of this year is that any European label will be able to release a staple of the company's catalog: the incomparable 1953 Callas recording of Puccini's "Tosca" with Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, both at their peaks, with the Italian maestro Victor de Sabata conducting.
Callas fans, no doubt, will heatedly debate the artistic merits and the sound restoration on the four new releases of live performances from La Scala on EMI, the most familiar being a 1955 performance of Bellini's "Sonnambula," with Callas in top form and Leonard Bernstein, then 36, conducting. This recording, available over the years on various independent labels, has long been an underground hit.
The stakes for EMI are considerable.
"Some in the company say we should be throwing roses on the Aegean Sea every year," Mr. Forlow said. "Callas keeps the lights on here."
I used to admire King.
I'd read that too. Is it possible that Europe is providing longer copyrights to new works, but has decided that "limited terms" means precisely that--that copyrights cannot be extended any further than was possible at the time they were issued?
BTW, if Europe does only offer a 50-year copyright term, that would be another argument toward overturning the unconstitutional endless extensions put forth by Congress.