The Music Modernization Act, which recently passed the House and is waiting for a vote in the Senate after passing the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, is in fact a combination of three bills, one of which is the Compensating Legacy Artists for their Songs, Service, and Important Contributions to Society (CLASSICS) Act.
The CLASSICS Act, writes Katherine Trendacosta of Electronic Frontier Foundation,
is a very bad bill that has been bundled with the largely-good Music Modernization Act (MMA)…The original text of MMA created a new way to compensate songwriters and publishers for music played on digital services. CLASSICS, on the other hand, took advantage of a messy and confusing situation—not unusual in copyright—in order to let labels find new ways to make money off of music that should be in the public domain.
The situation is this: sound recordings didn’t used to be protected by federal copyright law. As a result, states came up with their own laws, creating a patchwork. Congress did eventually get around to bringing sound recordings under federal copyright law, but only for recordings made in 1972 and later. Older recordings remained under the old crazy quilt of state law. This meant they did not enter the public domain when they should have. State laws continue to govern the pre-1972 sound recordings until 2067…After so much time, even finding the rightsholders to ask for permission to copy a recording is a daunting task.
If this is a Frankenstein’s Monster that emerged from the laboratories of democracy, CLASSICS is a Bride of Frankenstein that, “leaves the current state copyrights in place, some lasting more than 144 years, while simultaneously creating a federal system to collect money that federal copyright might not entitle them to.”
Such a policy would also seriously threaten institutions previously complying with federal law, like music libraries, who could face the risk of violating federal copyright law. Even if it’s not clear these institutions would actually face any penalties, the risk of a lawsuit could scare away many trying to make older pieces of music available to the public.
Fortunately, there is some hope in the form of Ron Wyden’s Accessibility for Curators, Creators, Educators, Scholars, and Society to Recordings Act (ACCESS to Recordings Act), which would apply federal copyright standards to all recordings.