Wolfgang’s Legal Hydra

The debate over whether Wolfgang’s Vault is breaking copyright laws is heated, and nobody can deny that Vault owner Bill Sagan has himself in a very tangled legal web.

Sagan bought Bill Graham’s archives from then-Clear Channel Entertainment and the inventory included hundreds of concert posters and hours of audiotape (Bill recorded most of the shows he promoted). Artists and their representatives have sued Wolfgang’s Vault, claiming Sagan may have bought the physical inventory but has no right to resell the artwork – or play the music for the public – without compensating the artist.

The whole thing reeks of a legal nightmare, and the New York Times recently broke it all down.

"Just because you own the tapes doesn’t mean you have the copyright to the music on them," said attorney Ashlie Beringer, whose firm represents bands suing the Vault. "The copyright act says that the performers are the presumed owners of the copyright."

Because some artists were under contract when the live recordings were made, Sony BMG Entertainment has joined in the lawsuit, the Times said.

Sagan has filed a counterclaim. In it he asserts that artists gave Graham explicit or implicit permission to record their shows because they knew he had the propensity to do so, according to the Times. The counterclaim includes a defamation claim against Grateful Dead veteran Bob Weir, who has stated that Sagan’s actions are akin to stealing.

"A copyright owner is someone who contributes to that work, and our position is we contributed to the development of the sound recording," Sagan attorney Michael Elkin told the Times. Elkin added that Graham used some of the recordings over the years without objections from the artists.

Robert Sullivan, an attorney with Loeb & Loeb who represents Johnny Cash, weighed in as well.

"You have to look at the artist’s contract with the record company to see who would own recordings not made in the studio," Sullivan said. When it comes to a performance originally intended for broadcast, "you’d have to look at the radio show contract, and those vary widely."

Record company patriarch Danny Goldberg also had his say. Internet marketing and online stores has made it easier for niche products such as the disputed recordings to get to the fans, and Goldberg told the Times he was considering buying a catalog of live recordings even if he planned to only release a fraction of it.

Ironically, it is more desirable to own these old recordings (Sagan’s collection includes The Who performing "Tommy" at the Fillmore and plenty of Mahavishnu Orchestra) than newer ones, because the older demographic still buys music rather than illegally downloading it, the Times said.

"At some point it becomes irrational not to figure out a way to exploit this stuff if the parties involved will benefit," Greg School, CEO of digital distribution company The Orchard, told the paper. "There’s no question this stuff is more saleable than it was."