The CLASSICS Act is Not a Reversal of Copyright Doctrine

As the world mourns the passing of Aretha Franklin, we need no further discussion about the value of recording artists. The anthem of a generation, Franklin’s first hit, “Respect” was not written by her but by Otis Redding, who first recorded the song in 1965. But in 1967, Aretha made that song what it is—“owned it” as we say today—along with the work of producer Jerry Wexler, engineer Tom Dowd, and the studio musicians at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, including King Curtis, who gave us that instantly-recognizable saxophone solo, and who was murdered in 1971.

We also need no further evidence that the somewhat arbitrary line in copyright law, which places pre-1972 sound recordings in a class separate from those made after February of that year, has little to do with the timelessness of many recorded songs. Who knows how many times Aretha’s records will be played over the coming decades via Sirius XM or Pandora or other non-interactive digital services, but is it truly unreasonable that these corporations should pay a license fee for that privilege? Is it wrong, for instance, that the heirs of engineer Tom Dowd, who passed away in 2002, receive some fraction of a royalty for his contributions to the sounds of Franklin, Coltrane, Mingus, Clapton, Charles, Rod Stewart, et al?

Some critics of the CLASSICS Act seem to think it is wrong on principle—that CLASSICS creates a royalty “windfall” that these authors never expected at the time in which they made these sound recordings. This is how copyright critic and scholar Annemarie Bridy described her antagonism toward CLASSICS via Twitter a couple weeks ago, and it is the reason she calls the bill a reversal of copyright doctrine. “My only dog in this fight is not wanting to see © created retroactively for existing works whose very existence is proof that their creators needed no copyright incentive for their creation. I see no doctrinal justification for it,” Bridy tweeted.

And I wouldn’t pick on one critic alone for her tweets except for the fact that I’m sure Bridy represents the views of many who feel likewise, despite the fact that her position—although posing as a statement of raw principle—is doctrinally unsound, historically inaccurate, just plain mean-spirited, and kinda dangerous as a rationale.

By dangerous, I mean to say that even if CLASSICS does represent a shift in legal doctrine (and I hold that it does not), why should this alone be an argument against its adoption? Doctrinal change is the reason Bridy has advanced degrees and a job at a university instead of being restricted to “women’s work.” Doctrinal change is the reason Aretha’s “Respect” became an anthem that added the essential ingredient of boogie to the civil rights movement. What exactly is wrong with doctrinal change? It’s the only way this country has ever managed to live up to the grand promises in its founding documents.

With regard to copyright law, Bridy’s premise is that because copyright’s purpose is incentive, it is therefore superfluous to establish a new copyright protection for works for which the incentive obviously existed at the time of their authorship. In my view, this is the mean-spirited part of her argument—and it is a view shared by others—which espouses a too-mercenary approach to copyright’s purpose. It is an extension of the sentiment that copyright is a “devil’s bargain” which society makes with artists in order to get them to produce what we want out of them. (And it is a sentiment I find especially unpalatable in context to artists of color.)

But in addition to this being a rather craven way to relate to any artist, it is also historically oversimple—particularly with regard to the public performance right and pre-72 sound recordings, which are technically protected by common-law copyright due to a rather muddled definition of the word “published” in the evolution of statutory copyright. (See new post by copyright historian Zvi Rosen for more details).

Suffice to say that Bridy poses an argument which, to the casual observer looks reasonable, but which the copyright expert recognizes as glossing over the complicated legal status of pre-72 sound recordings. Nobody I know disagrees that the 1972 threshold created a copyright mess, but Bridy’s opinion does little to untie that know when she conflates constitutional copyright (i.e. its foundational purpose) with statutory and common-law copyright in the service of blasting a very narrow, and very simple, amendment to the law.

A Doctrinal Shift?

As a broad rebuttal to Bridy’s premise that CLASSICS represents a dramatic shift in principles, it is neither settled legal doctrine, nor settled history, that copyright’s sole purpose is incentive. While the debate continues as to whether intellectual property rights are indeed grounded in natural rights, there is at least enough scholarship on this subject to reject Bridy’s over-reliance on the assumption that once incentive has been achieved, copyright has fulfilled its only value. (Moreover, even the incentive calculus entails a bundle of rights, enforceable over many years, and includes more than pecuniary transactions.)

But we don’t even need to get into the more theoretical aspects of intellectual property law, or debate the extent to which Lockean principles of property and labor informed the Constitution and the earliest American statutes. Because even without all that, CLASSICS is just a tiny amendment to the Copyright Act that accomplishes more or less what every amendment to copyright law has always done: respond to changes in technology.

Nearly every update to copyright law represents an effort to identify and protect the creative expressions of authors in the context of new technologies, whether these have been new means of producing and distributing works or new means of copying and potentially infringing works. And it is also worth noting that many of the limitations to copyright’s protections have also been written in response to new technologies.

So, when Bridy declares that the recording artists working before 1972 had no expectation of this royalty stream, she’s overstating what CLASSICS does by understating the obvious—that no artist working well into the 1990s likely imagined the expansion of non-interactive, digital streaming “radio” services. Yet, somehow the artists whose recordings were made after 1972—and are, therefore, receiving royalties from these services—are not the beneficiaries of a copyright “windfall” in Bridy’s view? She’s conflating a technological change in the market with an aberration in copyright history to make a case that this amounts to a doctrinal reversal.

As discussed in this post, the sound-recording right itself has almost never played much of a role between artists and their consumers. Artists like Aretha Franklin made sound recordings, consumers bought physical copies, and the radio broadcasters successfully argued against paying royalties on the (then not unreasonable) grounds that radio play sold records.

Today, digital streaming has largely replaced sales of recordings, and relatively new players like Pandora provide a radio-like experience, including thousands of pre-72 sound recordings because, like Aretha’s classics, they still kick ass. But they also earn revenue for these services, which can no longer claim that their play promotes record sales. And all CLASSICS does is insist that a portion of the revenue earned from streaming these songs goes back to the artists, supporting artists, and supporting creators who made them. That is anything but a reversal of copyright doctrine. It’s a reaffirmation of a founding principle of copyright: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

© 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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One comment

  • I could write a book and never publish it and the copyright remains. Having published it I can allow it to go out of print and the copyright remains, some one can’t come along and republish it without a license. I can refuse to have it made into a film and the copyright remains. One of the long established principles of property is the right to exclude all others.

    Someone writing a play in 2000 may not have considered that it might be shown as some 3D holographic projection, but the author would still have a copyright in any such performance.

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