A Quagmire of Musical Copyright

Yes, copyright law is supposed to benefit society by encouraging people to create works of artistic merit that then enrich the world through their distribution.  But sometimes the results of copyright can be the exact opposite of that intended goal.  Case in point, there's a newly discovered collection of recordings made of live performances of the swing era that includes many jazz greats performing the longer works that wouldn't have fit on the 78 RPM record discs of the time.  Following the owner's death, the collection came into the hands of the National Jazz Museum of Harlem.

"Hooray!" you jazz fans exclaim.  "Now we'll get to hear these recordings once they're released to the public."

But not so fast.  Apparently, the museum isn't planning on releasing them.  That's not because it wouldn't like to do that.  It's because tracking down the music's copyright owners and securing all the necessary permissions to release these decades-old recordings could prove a colossal task for the museum, and one it's not prepared to undertake.

You can learn more by reading the article in the American Bar Association's ABA Journal.  And, just as intriguing to me... If you want a good example of just how complicated copyright law can get, check out the legal debate in the comments at the end of the article.

Legal Writing Prefers Dylan

Sometimes a song just says it all...whether you're in love, feeling blue, or filing a legal brief.

Yes, quoting song lyrics has long been a practice in the legal profession, where sometimes lawyers or judges just feel the need to spice up otherwise dry filings or opinions with a familiar refrain from popular music.  And, as it turns out, Bob Dylan is the music writer of choice much of the time.

According to a Los Angeles Times story, a University of Texas professor did a content analysis in legal databases in 2007 and found that the music of Mr. Dylan, the author of such tunes as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'," was quoted 186 times, far outpacing the second place finishers, the Beatles.

Da-Da-Da-Dut-Da-Dah! -- Sue!

Okay, ya gotta love this one...

You know that tune they play at sports events when they want the crowd to chear on the home team by yelling "CHARGE!"?  It kind of goes:  "Da-da-da-DUT, da-daaaaaah."  (And this is where everyone's suppose to yell "charge.")  Well there's a man in Florida who claims he wrote that melody about 30 years ago and owns the copyright on it.  What's more, he's suing for what he says are the monetary compensations he never received.

Bobby Kent filed the suit in Florida, claiming that he wrote the well-known ditty as part of a larger piece of music he titled Stadium Doodads.  According to news reports, it first got played at San Diego Chargers games while Mr. Kent was in charge of the music there.  He says other teams picked it up, but no one ever asked his permission or paid him for the use.  So now he's suing ASCAP, and he's demanding of every professional sports team that they pay him $3,000 per year for the tune's use at their games.  According to reports, so far only the Los Angeles Lakers have paid up.

One notable wrinkle in Mr. Kent's claim of authorship is that there seems to be some evidence that the same combination of six notes was penned some years earlier by Tommy Walker, a student at the University of Southern California, where they claim to have been playing the "charge" theme since the 1950s.

Mr. Kent lays claim to a registered copyright on his song.  So perhaps the real legal issue is:  Are the sports teams playing Mr. Kent's "da-da-das" or Mr. Walker's "da-da-das"?

Courtroom Drama Film Revives 146-Year-Old Legal Questions

Over the course of 2002-2005, I researched and wrote a play, titled The Judicial Murder of Mrs. Surratt, in which I dramatized the trial of Mary Surratt, a woman implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the first woman judicially executed by the United States government.  Performances of the play always spark a lot of questions about the legal issues involved.  Those issues include not only the question of whether or not she was actually guilty but, also, the question of whether the military tribunal that heard the case was a legally valid venue in which to conduct the trial of civilians.

Robert Redford's new film, The Conspirator, delves into the same historical story (although, unlike my play, the film focuses its attention more on Mrs. Surratt's defense lawyer than on Mrs. Surratt, herself).  And the film again raises these same now-146-year-old legal issues -- issues that continue to be debated today.

The film prompted a California public radio station to do a story about both the history and the legal issues.  It includes an interview with yours truly.  You can hear the story, as well as additional audio from reporter Kitty Felde's interviews, on the Southern California Public Radio website.

Upstate N.Y. Village Repeals Public Art Ban

It was supposed to be only a six-month moratorium, but it was enough for artist Melanie Gold to file a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court against the upstate New York village of Greenwood Lake.  According to a Times Herald-Record newspaper article, when Ms. Gold announced her plan to paint a mural on the side of a private building, village officials enacted a six-month ban on public art to give themselves time to establish a new committee for the purpose of creating a public art code -- something the town apparently didn't have but the officials deemed to be an important first step to giving official blessing to publicly displayed murals.  Ms. Gold filed suit, claiming the ban infringed her First Amendment rights, and, she painted three public murals in protest.

According to the article, the suit was settled this month when the village agreed to repeal the ban.  A victory, it seems, for the artist.  Of course, if my math is correct, the six-month public art ban, which the article states was enacted on November 1st, was scheduled to end at the close of this month anyway.