Friday, April 24, 2009

Wake-up call for collectors

(Reader caution: Hard-core record collectors' stuff follows.)

The European Parliament has approved an extension of copyright protection for recordings from the current 50 to 70 years, The Guardian reports:

This further nudges shut a door through whose cracks have come hundreds of reissues from the 78 era, transcriptions of concert recordings, airchecks from broadcasts and other sources that have enlivened, and at times enraged, classical performers and listeners. Sizeable portions of the discographies of certain artists, from Carlos Kleiber and Sergiu Celibidache to Walter Gieseking and Ginette Neveu, come from such sources.

Not all the finer points of intellectual property law have been observed in some of these releases. (Is that weasel-worded enough to keep lawyers off my back?) In pre-European Union times, some countries extended copyright protection for much shorter periods than the international norm, and recordings in their public domain circulated in countries where the material was still protected. There have been occasional legal proceedings, and a few semi-juicy scandals. Also, a lot of grousing among collectors regarding sound quality, reliability of source matter and properly pitched transfers.

All that could be coming to an end. A 70-year copyright would extend back to 1939, and cover the mature recordings of most every prominent artist heard in living memory. These won't disappear entirely; specialty firms will continue to offer discs and downloads, passing on to buyers any additional costs from licensing arrangements with the source labels.

As for the transcriptions and airchecks, who knows? A producer might have to jump through all kinds of hoops – dickering with state radio networks, estates of deceased artists and, for all we know, stagehands' unions – to obtain suit-proof clearance to circulate a recording. And the resulting cost to the consumer might far exceed the value of the document. (What would you pay to hear a famous artist or legendary cast in a recording that sounds like it's coming over a bad phone line?)

Anyway, heads up, collectors: Many of the flawed but still fascinating non-studio recordings of great orchestras, conductors, instrumentalists and singers of the past – especially those active since World War II – may soon disappear from circulation or cost a lot more. Get ’em while you can.