The past few days have been an interesting peek into the strange and sometimes bizarre world of copyrights.
I've been kicking around the idea of a book -- collecting these up and publishing them with an in-bound CD of the music to some of the shows. Being one who prefers to ask permission instead of forgiveness (which, in the legal world, can be real expensive), I started asking around to see if I could find out who owns what and how much of this stuff is still "owned".
One company (which shall remain nameless) turned my request over to the legal department of the company that handles all their distribution and perfomance rights, and the letter I received from this individual (who shall also remain nameless) was.. well, sad on one hand and astounding on the other. Bear in mind that most of these havent been performed for perhaps six or seven decades... but the way this lawyer framed it, he was protecting Gollum's precious, in terms so hardlined and sharp that I decided, hey, there's plenty of other stuff out there to work with. No need to fool with this twit.
So I got the government's online copyright research page... and then the true wonder of how flat-out twisted our copyright laws have become hit me in the face with a large frying pan.
Let's see -- you cant research anything published prior to 1969. For that, you have to contact the Copyright Office which, for a fee, will research it for you... with no guarantee that the information they have will be correct. Or, alternatively, you can travel to DC and go through their card catalogue, but -- again -- there's no reassurance that what you find will be the latest information. Something could have had it copyright renewed, and the card catalogue might not have it indicated as such.
So here I have a situation where several of these publishers dont even exist anymore... or else they were bought out by a larger firm, with no idea of whether or not the purchaser took their entire catalogue or just parts of it, leaving the rest fallow. In some cases, from what I've found, even the still-existing publishers dont know if their materials are still protected or not.
Folks, we're talking about stuff that's no longer performed and hasnt been for well over sixty years. These little things are just collecting dust in an archive somewhere, and trying to get information about them is next to impossible. Actually, no, it's on the other side of impossible: I have a score for an operetta written in 1921, and the Library of Congress wont release a copy of the libretto without authorization from the copyright holder... except that the company no longer exists, the creators are all dead, and the work hasnt been performed since 1922. So what does one do in that case?
For the bulk of the works discussed here, written in the 1930s, the situation becomes even more absurd. Pre-1937, the copyright would have fallen in one of seven categories -- or possibly two, since one would be for music, the other for a "dramatic work". Renewal of the copyright would depend on a half dozen different factors. Post-1937, it becomes even more chaotic.
Thank you, Mr. Disney. Much appreciated, sir. I hope you choke on your little mouse.