Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Decopyrighted and uncopyrighted works, especially music

Monday night (18 June) at 11:00 pm, the new Copyright Bill (C-11) of Canada passed third reading in the House of Commons. It still needs to pass the Senate and receive Royal Assent before it becomes the new "Copyright Modernization Act" and will modify Canada's "Copyright Act." Let's take it as certain that those two remaining steps won't be problems.

The Bill has good and bad points. Many of the good points have been achieved through years of public pressure, as Michael Geist was kind enough to show in his 18 June 2012 posting "The Battle over C-11 Concludes: How Thousands of Canadians Changed The Copyright Debate" in an easy-to-read table. However, one of the points that I am happiest about is a non-change. Canada, unlike the United States, Britain, and Australia, did not change the duration of copyright.

The general term of copyright for "works" (according to Section 6 of the Copyright Act) is the remainder of the year in which the author dies and fifty years after that. For "sound recordings" and broadcasts (according to Section 23 of the Copyright Act), fifty years total. The fact we've kept to a fifty-year limit for sound recordings and "life plus fifty" for other works means that we will have a growing public domain for the foreseeable future, and we can keep putting new books into Project Gutenberg Canada each year.

(My contribution to PG Canada, by the way, is Fletcher Pratt's The Battles that Changed the World).

Such riches! It makes me feel like Henry Bemis did, before his glasses broke, in "Time Enough at Last" (an episode from the Twilight Zone tv series).

I primarily want to write about recorded music. Since this is 2012, all the music recordings from 1961 or earlier (i.e. over fifty years ago) are legally public domain. They have no owners; they have no cost. Illegal downloads of them are, in fact, legal. Sampling them for your own music is fine. Using them as soundtracks for your movies (as long as your movies are shown in Canada) is fine. Also, and fortunately, some of them are very good music.

We can find what was published in a certain year by going to a set of Wikipedia pages. Here is a list of the albums of popular music from 1961, including ones by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and Joan Baez. Let's just say, there is a wide variety of styles represented. Another section of that same page lists the classical recordings of that year. The lists for 1962, 1963, and so on are also available.

The 1963 recordings include the beginning of what we think of as "sixties music." The Beach Boys released their second album, Surfin' USA, in 1963 and The Beatles released their first (Please Please Me) and second (With the Beatles) albums. Subsequent years will see albums by the Rolling Stones, The Cream, Led Zeppelin, and so on fall into the Public Domain.

This excites me because this is a world where the copyright status of "Happy Birthday to You" is unclear, and movies will not use it so as to avoid the fees that are charged for it. It is a world where a band is successfully sued for using a few notes from "Kookaburra Sits on an Old Gum Tree." It is a world where Girl Scouts are asked to pay royalties for campfire songs. The more recordings there are in the Public Domain, the richer we, as a culture, will be.

Larry Lessig argued in a TED Talk for the importance of culture that we can adapt and re-use.

In her own creative way, Nina Paley made the same point in a one-minute movie.

This is a good place to mention an odd fact about recordings of piano music. There are certainly analogue recordings of nineteenth-century performances on Edison Cylinders, but their quality is not up to modern standards. This 1889 performance by Johannes Brahms is an example. However, there are actual digital recordings of piano music--piano rolls, that control a player piano. Rather than trying to reproduce the sound of the original performance, it recreates the performance, but on a different piano. In this way we have performances by Gustav Mahler, Edvard Grieg, Claude Debussy, Scott Joplin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev, Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin and George Gershwin recorded on player piano rolls.

When I made the connection in my mind that piano rolls are digital recordings, I became quite excited. After all, although there are lovely performances of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," like this from Disney's Fantasia 2000, wouldn't Gershwin's own 1925 performance interest you?

(By the way, the principle of the player piano is still being used, though with vastly improved technology. A performance of J.S. Bach's Goldburg Variations by Kimiko Ishizaka, which was recently released to the Public Domain, was recorded on a specially equipped piano).

As long as I am on the subject of classical music released free of charge, I'd like to include links to a few pieces that I've found. MIDI transcriptions of piano rolls are at pianola.co.nz. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has ten live performances for download in return for your name and e-mail. MusOpen is a non-profit organization that sought $11,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to hire an orchestra (the Prague Symphony, as it turned out) and raised almost $70,000 for it. With this money, it recorded 27 symphonies for release to the Public Domain. The ProTools files of the performance are available for download, but the mixing and balancing for the MP3 and FLAC files are taking place now. A May 22 update says that this will be finished "soon," so patience will be rewarded.

I've modified this posting quite a bit since I first put it up. I may modify it again, since the purpose is to document my "continuing" education. If you know of any good Public Domain classical recordings or high-quality recordings of piano roll music that are available for legal download, please put them in the comments.


  1. Gareth, interesting post, with GREAT links! Thank you for doing the research!

  2. Thanks, Guy. I've been using Bittorrent to download three categories of music files. There are the records and Cds that I paid for long ago, music that is currently in the public domain, and music that will enter it in the next few years (in case access to it disappears by then). I've found some really great music in the process that I hadn't heard of. For example, the Blues Breakers.

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  4. Thanks Gareth - I found this whole article fascinating with lots of links to explore.

    Are you in contact with Pianola.co.nz as I have sent two messages over the last week or two to ask if it is OK to use their Midi transcriptions in my own works in the case where the piano rolls have fallen into the public domain (e.g. recorded in 1911, author died in 1921), and I haven't been able to get any reply. If you could please ask on my behalf (noting that you have promoted their site here) and let me know that'd be great.

    Happy 2015 to you.

    1. Thank you for the email. Obviously, the subject inspired me.

      As for the piano rolls that were scanned into MIDI files, I can't see that you have any obstacles in using them. As the Pianola.co.nz web site says, "I've made these scanned piano rolls available for all to download and listen to, free of charge. All I request in return is that, if you enjoy the music, you sign my guestbook and let me know." Since no changes were made to the music, no new copyright applies to the music, as far as I can see. Copyright only attaches to new creative works. So I'd go ahead, enjoy yourself with the files, and sign the nice man's guestbook as a courtesy :-)