[JPL] New York Times editorial on the Savory collection

Tom Reney tr at wfcr.org
Sun Aug 22 22:41:55 EDT 2010

August 21, 2010

  Free That Tenor Sax

For jazz fans, nothing could be more tantalizing than the excerpts 
<http://www.jazzmuseuminharlem.org/savory.php> made available by the 
National Jazz Museum in Harlem of newly discovered recordings from the 
1930s and '40s. Nearly 1,000 discs containing performances by masters 
like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and the 
long-neglected Herschel Evans suddenly re-emerged 
<http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/arts/music/17jazz.html> when the son 
of the audio engineer, William Savory, sold them to the museum.

The museum is doing its best to clean up and digitize the recordings. 
But because of the way copyright laws work, excerpts may be all that 
fans can hear for some time. The museum paid for the discs, but cannot 
distribute the music until it has found a way to compensate the estates 
of the musicians, many of which may be very difficult to track down 
after all these decades. Hawkins's saxophone solo on "Body and Soul" 
<http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/18/arts/music/18savory.html> may be 
reason enough for Congress to revisit this issue and free historical 
documents from excessive legal fetters.

Copyright laws are designed to ensure that authors and performers 
receive compensation for their labors without fear of theft and to 
encourage them to continue their work. The laws are not intended to 
provide income for generations of an author's heirs, particularly at the 
cost of keeping works of art out of the public's reach.

The Savory collection, like other sound recordings made before 1972, is 
covered by a patchwork of state copyright and piracy laws that in some 
cases allow copyrights to remain until the year 2067. Congress needs to 
bring all these recordings under the purview of federal copyright law, 
which generally applies during the lifetime of the author or musician 
plus 70 years. That time period has been criticized as too long, but is 
unlikely to be changed because it is part of a global trade treaty.

The most significant issue for art like the jazz recordings is that they 
are considered "orphan works," still under copyright but for which the 
artist can no longer be located. In 2008, the Senate passed a bill that 
would limit the copyrights on such orphaned material. Under the bill, if 
a good-faith but unsuccessful effort is made to locate the owner, 
someone else can publish the work. An artist who later steps forward is 
entitled to reasonable compensation but not the heavy damages now in the 

The House never passed the bill, in part because of objections by 
artists who feared a corporate takeover of their rights. But it should 
be possible to re-examine the bill and tighten the good-faith-effort 
provisions while still allowing orphan works to be published, especially 
if older recordings are added to the bill. (This could also allow Google 
and other companies to digitally distribute long-neglected books that 
are still under copyright.)

Jazz Museum officials are hopeful that a blanket payment to the American 
Federation of Musicians might solve this problem. That would be good 
news. No one should have to wait to hear Herschel Evans's tenor sax.


Tom Reney
"Jazz à la Mode"
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