01 October 2006

Who Gets Copyright

Two stories in newspapers halfway around the world from each other illuminate the stickiest part of the copyright conundrum: Who gets protection, and who benefits? Both stories also include an undercurrent of schadenfreude uncommon in high-end MSM pieces.

Ignoring the irony inherent in the source for the moment—don't worry, we'll return to it!—a story in today's NYT practically begs for sad violins in the background as it describes the sad, sad plight of the individuals whose stories led to A Chorus Line. That particular play (which, although immensely profitable over the years, deserves at most "It is very good of its kind") is about to be revived. Again. The apparent problem is this: The 20 dancers who contributed to several taping sessions, later distilled and transmogrified to the skeleton of the play, sold their rights for $1. And now the survivors are a bit upset that they're not continuing to share in the play's financial success.

This particular controversy arises from the interplay of copyright law and New York state law. Under New York state law, there is no formal "right of publicity" as exists in most of the rest of the country; one must try to cram a publicity-like theory into another tort. The more-interesting aspect, though, concerns who would have been entitled to copyright in the first place. Under US copyright law, the person who fixes the material has the copyright (and it gets even more convoluted when one remembers that it wasn't quite the same under the 1909 Act… and these interviews took place in 1974). That is, copyright in a live performance belongs to the recorder, not to the performer. As counterintuitive as this sounds, though, it runs right into New York law on performers' rights—law implicated in the notorious Naxos decision that essentially extends permanent copyright-like protection to recordings under New York state law.

Returning to the irony—you don't really expect me to ignore any available irony, do you?—consider the source in which this article appeared. Not only was the NYT the named main defendant-malefactor in Tasini, but the NYT's policy since then has been positively rapacious. Contributors to the NYT are now expected to sign away their copyrights not just in the work being presented, but in all past works published by any unit of the New York Times Company, too. Throw in a few outrageously expansive interpretations of work for hire at the paper (and various units of the company, such as the Boston Globe), compare it to the "poor underprotected dancer" tone of the article, and we've got six times the US RDA of irony from a single article consumed with my morning caffeine!

Halfway around the world, the Japan Times tells of efforts to extend the copyright term in Japan. Japan largely adheres to a "life plus 50" copyright term, with a couple of twists: Corporate works are flat-50, while certain non-Japanese-origin works that were exploited in Japan between 1938 and 1951 get the benefit of longer terms under the Treaty of San Francisco, because during that time Japan denied foreign works copyright protection. (As usual, it's actually much more complicated than that.) One segment of the article is particularly illuminating:

Novelist Masahiro Mita, vice president of the Japan Writers Association, said behind the request is an increase in life expectancy and the idea that families depend on the money they get from copyrights even after the artists have died. "Especially in Japan, there are many 'I' novels, and authors have made subject matter of their family's private business," he said, indicating it is natural for relatives to receive royalties for a long time. At the Daiso-Sangyo Co. 100 yen shops, copies of famous novels by Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) and Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) are lined up. The company has published 30 of their works, with notes and commentaries. They are sold at 100 yen apiece because their copyrights have expired, but Mita said, "I suppose their families cannot endure that."

Aya Tamura, "Novelists, Others Want Copyright Protection Extended" (30 Sep. 2006) (fake paragraphing removed for clarity). This presents a fascinating resonance with the NYT article in today's paper. It also illuminates one of the economic paradoxes in copyright law: the balance among uncertainty, unexpected returns, and the translation problem. That, however, is for another time and another few hundred footnotes.