Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Copyright Laws Limit Availability of National Jazz Museum’s “The Savory Collection”

Last year, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem acquired a private collection of nearly 1,000 jazz recordings from the estate of William Savory. What makes this collection so remarkable is that it is comprised of unpublished recordings of some of the greatest jazz musicians of all timeBillie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and many others. 
In the late 1930s, William Savory (born William Desavouret) worked for a studio that transcribed live performances for radio networks. At the time, technology was limited to 78 rpm shellac discs that only held about three minutes of recording time. Bands, which contracted with the networks to make the recordings, would perform arrangements that worked within the confines of the recording limitations.
But Savory apparently was a technical genius, and while commercially recording 78s, was privately recording on bigger discs (12 to 16 inches) made of aluminum or acetate, and at slower speeds (33 1/3 wasn’t officially invented until after WWII by a team that included Mr. Savory). This allowed him to capture performances that were not staged for recordinglonger versions of rehearsed material, improvisation, and jam sessions that were otherwise heard only by live audiences.
There is nothing to suggest that Savory hid what he was doing, but neither did he attempt to publicly distribute or commercialize his recordings. In fact, he allowed only a few to even hear any of his recordings during his lifetime, and no one really knew how many he had until after his death in 2004, when his son saved the recordings from being tossed out with the garbage. It was only then that the size and quality of the collection was discovered. Although much of the collection was damaged, only about a fourth was considered to be in very poor shape, and despite damage, the quality of the recordings was impressive. Savory clearly knew what he was doing.
The National Jazz Museum (NJM) is currently in the process of digitizing the music, and a few short excerpts are available online at the museum’s website. (Even if you are not a jazz fan, it is worth checking this out to hear the quality of these untouched recordings from the late 1930s). Beyond that, one can make an appointment with the museum to hear more. 
Sadly, although the NJM would like to make all of the recordings publicly available, commercially or otherwise, it may never be possible to purchase recordings of all or even a significant portion of the collection because of current copyright laws. I’m a fan of copyright laws. I respect the body of law intended to protect and compensate the creators of literary, musical, and artistic works. So why, if everyone is willing to pay for the privilege, can’t these recordings be publicly distributed? Because most are considered “orphan worksmaterial for which copyright owners cannot be determined. 
There can be numerous copyright owners with rights in a single performance, e.g., the writer(s) of the music and lyrics, the arranger, the publisher, the performers (as a band or individually), and the broadcaster. These recordings were created outside the scope of the contracts between the networks and the performing musicians, and subject to no separate written contract.
Although Savory apparently kept a meticulous catalog of the recordings, he probably didn’t record the name of each performer, nor have a written agreement himself with any of the performers. Clearly, Savory did not contemplate distribution of the recordings, and identifying and locating the persons with legal rights after nearly 60 years is clearly a Herculean task. At the same time, distribution without authorization could subject the user to substantial damages for “willful infringement,” while use without compensation would be unfair to the creators and their heirs, and an economic windfall to the distributor.
Recommendations for resolving or at least reducing the impact of orphan works have come from various industries and interested parties, including the Copyright Office, and the matter has twice been introduced before Congress. While no proposal is perfect, there are a number of reasonable recommendations that could make it easier to identify copyright holders, eliminate the risks associated with intentional infringement, and/or provide for compensation to copyright holders should they emerge and make a legitimate claim. 
Although individual constituencies might be able to resolve these issues for some industry segments (books, photographs, commercial film, etc.), it is unlikely that a universal solution will be resolved without legislative action. Unfortunately, Congress is busy doing nothing about more critical issues, so I’m not holding my breath on this one. And yet, I so want to hear every minute of this music! Maybe the National Museum of Jazz allows camping.

1 comment :

  1. For what it's worth...I've been researching the Savory collection and copyright law, and in fact, some of the Savory collection HAS been commercially released: The liner notes of the 1956 Benny Goodman album "The King Of Swing Vol. 1" state that "Most of the original disks were taken off the air by a fan named Bill Savory, a Columbia Records engineer, who also did the remarkable editing job which produced these final master tapes." The more I look into this, the more I question whether these are orphaned works at all--musicians unions appear to have been well in place by the 1930's, as was the music publishing industry--and certainly a museum seeking to further the scholarly study of jazz history is in a unique position to identify various rights holders. While I agree that legislative reform is needed in general, the more I look at this particular example of the Savory recordings, the more I wonder if the Museum isn't content to hold on to the recordings simply for the prestige of being the only location where they may be heard.