Music Copyright Ruling

Music recorded before the 1972 federal copyright act is still protected by copyright, the New York State Court of Appeals recently ruled. The decision holds ramifications mostly for classical music but could have worldwide significance for older rock ‘n’ roll tunes as well.

It means that artists, their estates and others involved in pre-1972 recordings should be able to collect royalties in the U.S., Capitol Records attorney Philip Allen said.

The case was filed by Capitol Records on behalf of its subsidiary EMI Classics, which argued that recording company Naxos of America was reproducing classical works illegally.

In 1996, Naxos sold restored copies of classical performances recorded in England in the 1930s by The Gramophone Co. Limited, now known as EMI Records Limited. The records competed with Capitol’s compact disc recordings, which the company licensed exclusively to EMI in 1996.

At stake was common-law copyright protection. In the U.K., many recordings are already in the public domain because of the continent’s 50-year copyright. In the U.S., it’s 75, but a federal court originally shot down Capitol’s lawsuit, saying the U.S. copyright law does not apply to recordings before 1972 and Capitol did not have common-law right under New York state law.

The state appeals court reversed the decision, ruling common law in New York “protects ownership interests in sound recordings made before 1972 that are not covered by the federal copyright act.” Therefore, Capitol can continue to sue Naxos for copyright violation.

The decision has consequence for rock ‘n’ roll, since the songs of the British Invasion in the ’60s and Elvis Presley’s original tunes were in the nebulous window between copyright protection and public domain.

“The answer to this question will have significant ramifications for the music recording industry, as well as these litigants,” the court stated.

Naxos said it is considering appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.