New York State High Court Finds Common Law Protects Copyright in Old Recordings Reissued by Naxos
Wednesday, April 06, 2005
By Michael Gormley
ALBANY, New York ó New York's highest court ruled Tuesday [April 5] that common law protects a record company's copyright on recordings made prior to 1972 ó a decision that could have industry-wide ramifications for everything from Bach to the Beatles.
That lawsuit involved Franklin, Tennessee-based Naxos of America Inc., which restored and marketed 1930s classical records made in England by another company, The Gramaphone Co. Limited, after the 50-year British copyright had expired.
Hollywood, California-based Capitol Records Inc., which currently holds the rights to those recordings, sued. A federal court dismissed Capitol's suit, saying federal copyright law only protected recordings since 1972, and Capitol had no common-law protections under New York state law.
Capitol appealed the common-law finding to the New York Court of Appeals, which ruled in its favor. A federal appeals court will now rule on the company's lawsuit using the state court's decision.
"I hope the companies who have been inclined to copy older classical recordings realize the New York court has spoken definitively on this and end any unlicensed copying," said Philip Allen Lacovara, the attorney for Capitol Records, of the 7-0 state decision released Tuesday. "It does have enormous importance."
He said the result is that artists, their estates and others involved in recordings made before 1972 could collect royalties in the United States for their performances, Naxos, which bills itself as "the world's leading classical music label," said it would appeal.
"There's a certain insanity" to the decision, said Naxos attorney Maxim Waldbaum, noting the court, for the first time, said copyright infringement can be proven even if there is no bad-faith effort or harm proven. He also said the law would prevent firms like Naxos from recovering and reintroducing lost works.
The New York court ruling applies to all recordings marketed in New York even if no other state or foreign law or common law was still in force, according to the decision.
Most of the recordings at issue feature classical performances, dramatic readings and oral histories. But the court argument also included British Invasion rock and pop groups from the 1960s, some of which will lose soon lose copyright protection under British law.
Tuesday's decision involved the 1930s classical performances originally recorded on shellac disks in England by Gramaphone, now known as EMI Records Limited. In 1996, EMI licensed exclusive U.S. marketing rights for the original recordings to one of its units, Capitol Records.
The same year, Naxos began selling its own restorations of the recordings. In trading Tuesday, shares of the EMI Group PLC, which owns EMI Records Limited and Capitol Records, closed up 2.8 percent at 244.25 pence on the London Stock Exchange.
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