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MMD > Archives > December 1997 > 1997.12.19 > 03Prev  Next

Nancarrow Rolls and American Copyright
By Matthew Caulfield

Juergen Hocker mentions copyright problems standing in the way of
copying Conlon Nancarrow's piano rolls.  Nancarrow lived and did much
of his work in Mexico.  I wonder whether Mexican or American copyright
law applies to the rolls?  Of course, with permission from the
composer's heirs, anything can be copied.

If American copyright law applies, then any of his rolls created after
December 31, 1977, are protected by copyright for 50 years from
Nancarrow's death -- until 2047.  The Copyright Act of 1976 is the
current American copyright law; a handy table showing when copyrights
expire is at

Assuming that Nancarrow rolls created before January 1, 1978, were
never published, the same term of protection applies.  If they were
published, however, then a special exception for published sound
recordings applies.

Here is the rationale for that exception.  Before February 15, 1972,
the U.S. had always refused copyright protection to sound recordings:
in deciding the famous White-Smith vs. Apollo case (in which both
DeKleist and Wurlitzer joined as interested parties) the U.S. Supreme
Court (October term 1907) established the principle that music rolls
were ineligible for Federal statutory copyright because they don't
constitute a fixation of music in a readable medium.

That decision, codified in the Copyright Act of 1909,  made all
subsequent sound recordings, such as phonograph records and tape
recordings, un-copyrightable.  Congress reversed the principle in
legislation effective February 15, 1972, making all sound recording
fixed from that date forward eligible for copyright.

The Copyright Act of 1976 (which superseded the Copyright Act of 1909)
decreed that all sound recordings fixed and published prior to February
15, 1972, would be protected until February 15, 2047, on which date all
would fall into the public domain.

So by mere coincidence, no matter when Nancarrow's rolls were made,
they seem to be protected under American law until 2047, if his heirs
want to prohibit copying or recording.

The good news here is that ALL old music rolls and phono records will
eventually become public domain.  The bad news is that you will have to
be alive on February 15, 2047, to see it happen.  That's not going to
be me, or most of us here on MMD.  Sigh!

There is another, more recent court case involving rights to old music
rolls.  That case, Powell vs. QRS, is one that I want to know more
about, but haven't had time to look up.  I wonder whether it was mooted
by the Copyright Act of 1976?

Matthew Caulfield

 [ I understand that the case brought by Harold Powell against John
 [ Malone (Play-Rite) was thrown out of court, along with the litigants.
 [ As I recall, Powell claimed ownership of the performance copyrights
 [ since he possessed the Ampico master rolls, but I don't know for
 [ sure why the case was dismissed.  -- Robbie

(Message sent Fri 19 Dec 1997, 21:03:16 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  American, Copyright, Nancarrow, Rolls

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