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Read this article at the Melody Nights blog.

Copyright law is a notoriously sticky subject, with artists, publishers and record-companies scrapping to retain ownership of works for the most lucrative length of time. Royalties are the gifts that keep on giving – long after the creator of the work has passed on, even.

Under UK and American laws, each sector of this minefield is regulated by a different set of rules, differing lengths of time under which the initial ownership is active, depending on the contractual obligations set out when the deal was first struck.

To put it simply, in music, every written composition, or recorded sound, is governed by a strict agreement stating that whoever was the first person to physically document the work is its rightful, legal owner. This usually lasts until a certain number of years following the creator’s death, unless a shorter term is initially specified. This ownership can also be re-assigned to a second-party.

When this period expires, the work will often become part of the public domain – that is unless the creator’s Will states that it shall continue to be owned by the family estate. More likely than not, the record company will choose to buy the catalogue back for a hefty sum, unless, unclaimed, the company chooses to take control without question from the public.

As you can imagine, this often leads to some fierce legal battles, as families take on the might of some of the world’s richest media empires.

So was the case recently with the family of Ray Charles.

Under American copyright law, songwriters (and so too their families) can reclaim ownership of material 35 years after the rights have been re-assigned. Until now, Ray Charles’ catalogue has been owned by Warner/Chappell, who have passed all royalties on to the Ray Charles Foundation – as specified in the late musician’s Will.

However, now the 35 years is up, Charles’ children are trying to exercise their right to take back ownership, thus denying the charity of its income from these royalties.

There are several hurdles to overcome here. Many of Charles’ songs were written via commission, meaning the rights were never strictly the property of him, and therefore his estate has no right trying to claim ownership now. True, too, is the fact that under various clauses in inheritance law, the Charles estate cannot legally alter what they receive other than what was laid out in the Will before the musician’s death.

We can only assume that a balance will be met, whereupon both parties will receive a share.

Aside from publishing disputes, there is also the small matter of sound recording copyright. This has gained a lot of press in recent years, not only as various veteran performers fight to extend the time-frame under which the rights belong to them, but also because once a recording falls out of copyright, it is free for anyone to use for whatever purpose – personal, or commercial.

This has lead to a rise in the use of antique soundtracks in modern sample-based music, as well as the emergence of a new strain of distribution companies: those who take public domain recordings, repackage them, and sell them as a new product for gargantuan profits.

The reason these businesses are thriving is due to the fact that in this current age of digital music consumption, people actively search for complete back-catalogues of classic artists, or soundtracks to the movies of their youths. Online stores specialising in public domain recordings offer these in plain sight, even if their methods of acquiring the music consist of little more than raiding charity shops and ripping audio from the vinyl using basic software.

Let me know your thoughts – how long should copyright last, and what freedoms should be associated with it?

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