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[ARSCLIST] Donation/purchase of the pre-1942 sound recordings (Wikipedia)

Tom Fine asked:

> This might be a naive question. Has anyone just asked whomever is
> the copyright owner of the Columbia cylinders? If it's Sony/BMG, I'd
> imagine they'd give up rights to anything but something Caruso-like
> for the positive PR, if it were pitched properly to the correct
> people. I'd guess the same about a LOT of vault stuff. I mean, no
> one's going to release copyrights on the Beatles or Elvis, but
> there's a ton of material that just sits there and is obviously of
> no commercial value to the majors. If someone could appeal to ego
> and corporate citizenship, I bet some of this stuff -- especially
> stuff from the cylinder and 78 eras -- could be shaken loose for
> public domain. Again, don't expect the Caruso's or Woody Guthries or
> Duke Ellingtons, but there were many examples of similar-style
> musicians in these eras who never caught on and faded into obscurity.

Interesting point.

Although I have no data to back this up, it would not surprise me if
the collections of pre-1942 U.S. sound recordings held by Sony BMG and
Universal Music Group cost them more to maintain than they get back in
revenue from reissues.

It costs $$$ to maintain these collections: legal, archival (for
preserving the masters that still exist), and simple administrative

Even if they net revenue from the pre-1942 stuff, it is a drop in the
bucket compared to contemporary material. Again, it would not surprise
me if the top recording artist for Sony BMG nets them more revenue
than reissuing all the pre-1942 material. Since Sony BMG has dozens of
major artists, and hundreds of minor artists, the revenue from the
pre-1942 stuff is truly a drop in the bucket, and will always be a
drop in the bucket.

I would think that donating the rights (and the existing masters) of
the whole pre-1942 collection to a 501(c)3, when done right, would net
them much more money than they will ever net from the collection.
Here's a case where copyright benefits them in that copyright still
gives the collection value which they can leverage.

Nevertheless, pride may overrule common sense. That's why it is
intriguing to look at an entity to purchase the entire pre-1942 sound
recordings from Sony BMG and possibly Universal Music Group (the
latter holds Decca, pre-ARC Brunswick/Vocalion, and Gennett --
anything else from the pre-1942 period?) and then donate the rights to
the Public Domain. (Yes, there is the royalty issue, but the vast
majority of pre-1942 recordings are not royalty encumbered -- one
reason for the 1942 "Petrillo" cutoff -- and there may be a clever way
to get around the few royalty agreements which exist before 1942.)

Interestingly, the Wikipedia folk have been approached by someone
who says they have access to $100 million to possibly purchase the
rights to copyrighted works to release to the Public Domain. Of
course, on Wikipedia-L I've made what I think is a strong case to
approach Sony BMG with an offer. Some sort of offer, plus other perks
and the right architecture of the deal to allow Sony BMG to write off
even more, plus the positive PR that will result, may be what is
needed to free the majority of the pre-1942 material. Universal may
also be approached similarly. Sony BMG + Universal should cover at
least 90% of all the pre-1942 U.S. commercial recordings (just a
wild guess, but we are talking about Victor, Columbia/Okeh, ARC,
Brunswick/Vocalion, and Decca/Gennett. The only other major not in]
this picture is Edison.)

Refer to the archives of wikipedia-l for my messages on this topic.
If anyone here is interested in this, maybe we can make the proposal
even stronger. Let me know in private.

Jon Noring

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