Copyright: The Ultimate Music Locker

Big Music has greeted the Internet Age with a full-scale war. It’s many sins against musicians, music lovers, and technological progress are well documented and don’t need to be hashed yet again.

One of the many weapons in the Big Music arsenal is copyright. They use it mercilessly against consumers and tech companies that dare to offer music in any other way than through them. But that is not the only way copyright stops people from listening to music; Congress has been obliging in extending the life of copyrights to ridiculous lengths such that nearly 80% of all content made after the 1920’s is not in the public domain. Vast amounts of music languish in Big Music vaults, tied up in copyrights, and not being released mainly due to little potential return. This is our culture’s heritage denied us because the copyright holder won’t make enough money from it to make it worth their while.

This was driven home from a different angle upon reading the ABA Journal article, “A Trove of Historic Jazz Recordings has Found a Home in Harlem, But You Can’t Hear Them.” It discusses how a veritable treasure of historic music recently unearthed cannot be released to the public because of the threat of possible copyright holders’ making legal claims of ownership. The discovered music is mostly live recordings of jazz legends in the 1930’s made for personal use at the time. But because many of those recorded, such as Billy Holiday and Coleman Hawkins, have works still under license with Big Music, the rights to the music is “unclear.” Undertaking who may own what is a big task for the National Jazz Museum in Harlem … and possibly too difficult to ever be accomplished.

These recordings are classified as “orphan” works – a whole class of content (pictures, music, film, books, etc.) – of which the ownership is not clear. Congress makes copyright law and, so far, has failed to address the issue of orphan works because, guess what? – content companies like Big Music are afraid of losing control over something that might be profitable. Music in the public domain brings them no profit (except when their signed artists covers one on a new, copyrighted, release!).

This lock down of our cultural heritage is nothing short of a crime against U.S. citizens. Orphan and historical works should have a special classification designated upon them and released into the public domain for all of us to enjoy. That Congress has lengthened copyright ownership such that our children’s children might be the first to hear music hidden in vaults from the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s is a travesty. It is even more of one when one considers how much music is lost due to damage, stupidity, and sheer negligence by the copyright holders.

Threats of legal action over copyrights are also at the root of the latest spat over online music lockers. A simple concept – uploading music you own to a private music locker so you can access later by download or streaming from other locations or devices – has Big Music in a snit mainly because they don’t make a dime from it. Oh, they whine that they are concerned about piracy and illegal music sharing, but the vast majority of users would be using such a service in perfectly legitimate ways.

This concept is hardly new; MP3.com launched a version of it back in the 1990’s. They were sued into oblivion on the ludicrous argument by Big Music that MP3.com didn’t actually transfer the physical files from a user’s computer to a server, but had master copies of music files that a user’s account just pointed at once ownership was proved by the user by physically inserting a CD that MP3.com verified. Since the user therefore wasn’t listening to a copy of a file that he/she had directly purchased and uploaded, but instead had been ripped by MP3.com and streamed to them, the service was found to be infringing of copyrights. It was an astonishing show of judicial ignorance of the way computers can be more efficient than slinging chunks of plastic around, and a triumph for Big Music to protect that business of slinging chunks of plastic around.

Google, Apple, and others have been diligently trying to set up such systems, but have been dogged by outrageous demands by Big Music. The owner of the original MP3.com set up a locker system again at MP3Tunes.com, and is again being sued. Kudos to Amazon.com for ignoring Big Music’s “licensing” dance and just implementing it with their Amazon Cloud Storage and Cloud Player. They won my dollars and gratitude for challenging Big Music over who owns music you buy – Big Music or us. They had the temerity to side with us, and likely will get sued too.

I sincerely want artists to get paid and earn a living. Those that help them get to market and promote them should also be compensated. No argument there. But not being able to hear legendary live jazz performances of historical import, or backup my music to an online server so I can listen to it on my netbook or phone, all because some large corporations don’t make a buck from it, is a real crime against U.S. citizens. It steals our culture from us, it stops people from lawfully using those works that should be in the public domain in creative new ways, and it fouls technological innovation that makes lives easier – and creates more profit.

So, for now, the most effective music locker is copyright law: it locks it up tight in Big Music’s grip. They’ve been empowered for too long by a Congress bought with Big Music PAC money, who then are only too happy to keep extending copyright’s reach in the name of corporate profits.

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