Opposing Copyright Extension

Commentary on Copyright Extension
Let's Say Enough to Copyright Welfare
Letter dated February 25, 1995 from Music Critic Gerald Nachman to the New York Times

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Let's Say Enough to Copyright Welfare

To the Editor:

    Re "A Rights Movement With Song at Its Heart" (Arts pages, Feb. 23):  The misguided attempt by songwriters' heirs to extend the copyright law from 75 to 90 years not only fails to guarantee protection of the writers -- who in nearly every case are long gone -- but isn't even a guarantee that a song won't be mishandled by the estates themselves.  Many an heir in search of a royalty fee is only too happy to license a song for junky commercial uses.

    In too many cases the estates so jealously guard the works that they end up doing more damage than good.

    Frederick Nolan, in his 1994 biography of Lorenz Hart, was unable to reprint any of Hart's lyrics in his book because the estate refuses to grant the use of the lyricist's work if Hart's homosexuality is mentioned.

    You have reported how a Michael Feinstein album of Gershwin songs was halted by the Ira Gershwin estate for reasons known only to it, even though Mr. Feinstein is a leading Gershwin authority and devotee.

    The Leonard Berstein estate pulled the plug on a production of "On the Town" when the Bernstein family objected to a dance number.  By his own acknowledgement, Ethan Mordden's biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein was contingent on his agreement to "respect the persons" of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

    Very often an estate doesn't think an obscure song or score depicts the songwriter in the best light and will refuse to license it or insist that it be interpreted according to the heirs' ideas, not the director's.

    Seventy-five years is a generous span to protect a song's integrity.  To add 15 years is unfair to the current generation of producers, directors, performers and authors.

    The purpose of the copyright law was to protect an original song from being misused or plagiarized during the artist's lifetime, not to provide an annuity for the songwriter's heirs in perpetuity, a kind of copyright welfare.

                                                                                        GERALD NACHMAN
                                                                San Francisco, Feb. 25, 1995
The writer won a 1988 Deems Taylor Aware for music criticism from the American Society of Composer, Authors and  Publishers