European copyright protection is expiring on a collector's trove of 1950's jazz, opera and early rock 'n' roll albums, forcing major American record companies to consider deals with bootleg labels and demand new customs barriers.
Already reeling from a stagnant economy and the illegal but widespread downloading of copyrighted music from the Internet, the recording companies will now face a perfectly legal influx of European recordings of popular works.
Copyright protection lasts only 50 years in Europe compared to 95 years in the United States, even if the recordings were originally made and released in America.
So recordings made in the early to mid-1950's by figures from Maria Callas to Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald have begun to go out of copyright in Europe, opening the way for any European recording company to release albums that had been owned exclusively by particular labels.
Although the distribution of the albums will theoretically be limited to Europe, record chains and specialty stores in the United States, routinely stock imports from Europe and elsewhere.
The expected crush of material has already sent one giant company, EMI Classics, into a shotgun marriage with a bootleg label it had long tried to shut down in an effort to protect its lucrative Callas discography. It also has the American record industry talking about erecting a customs barrier.
"The import of those products would be an act of piracy," said Neil Turkewitz, the executive vice president international for the Recording Industry Association of America (news - web sites), which has strongly advocated for copyright protections. "The industry is regretful that these absolutely piratical products are being released."
The association is trying to persuade European Union (news - web sites) countries to extend terms of copyright. In the meantime, Mr. Turkewitz said, "We will try to get these products blocked," arguing that customs agents "have the authority to seize these European recordings even in the absence of an injunction brought by the copyright owners."
The expiration of copyright protections for recordings from earlier decades has already led to voluminous European reissues of such historically important artists as the great violinist Jascha Heifetz and the legendary jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. But the recordings of the 50's are viewed as being of another order.
This was the era when recording techniques took a quantum leap and when the long-playing record came into its own and was embraced by the public. Even monaural records from the period, prior to the emergence of stereophonic sound, are prized today by classical and jazz audiophiles. And artistically, the decade marked the golden years of opera icons like Renata Tebaldi; the birth of rock heralded by recordings by Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis; and enormous outbursts of creativity from seminal jazz figures such as Theolonius Monk and Miles Davis. "That decade of recording transformed music and how the public consumes music," Mr. Turkewitz said.
It was also the great decade of Callas, who was under exclusive contract to EMI. The looming expiration of copyright on EMI's extensive Callas discography is what finally compelled the London-based company to take its unprecedented action.
EMI Classics (formerly Angel Records) has been the official keeper of the Callas discography since 1953 when the Greek soprano, then 29, made her first recordings for the company. Over the years, EMI has had to contend with independent labels that released unauthorized Callas recordings, mostly taken from pirated live performances. In the late 1990's, the bane of EMI's existence was a Milan-based independent called Diva, the largest producer of the unofficial recordings.
But last year, with the support of the Callas Estate in Athens, EMI cut a deal with Diva, which two years ago reconstituted itself as Marcal Records (for Maria Callas) and moved its offices to the Virgin Islands. EMI recently released a new batch of Callas recordings, including four complete live operas and five CD's of live concerts and rehearsals. The source for these was Marcal.
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