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 Recording of the Week  Copyright to be extended

I feel I've got a challenge on my hands this week - how to make an article about copyright interesting! The thing is, something happened this week that is likely to have a significant impact on the availability of many older recordings. Last Thursday the European Parliament’s influential legal affairs committee recommended extending the copyright term for recordings to 95 years. It still has to be approved by the Council of Ministers, but most insiders expect this to be passed into law without any further problems.

So what effect is this likely to have on the classical record industry?

At the moment the European copyright term is 50 years from the date of recording. That means that anyone with a 50-year-old LP can transfer it to CD and put it out on their own label. Several labels have made quite a business out of this, led particularly by Naxos and Regis. In reality it is not as simple as that as, to produce a good quality transfer from a recording fifty years old, you need several copies of the original LPs and an outstanding remastering engineer. Naxos have two such engineers in the form of Mark Obert-Thorn and Ward Marston, and it is not unusual for reviewers to find their remasterings (from LPs) actually sound better than the originals (from the master tapes).

Elgar conducting in 1931
Elgar conducting in 1931

The major record labels - who are generally the ones who own the copyrights in the first place - have been fighting for years to have the current 50 years extended (in the United States it is already 95 years). If (when) this copyright extension becomes law, the likes of Naxos will have to negotiate and buy the rights if they wish to continue their historical series. I'm not convinced that there is enough money in these re-issues for them to do that so suspect they might just stop. Now, this of course won't be a problem for us music lovers providing the label that owns the copyright re-issues the discs themselves but, if current form is anything to go by, they won't. Often the major labels don't even seem to know what they have got in their archives as the people who really know the catalogue have now long since moved on.

It is all very worrying and although there are genuine arguments as to why the copyright term should be extended, if the net result is that many fascinating, and sometimes great recordings become unavailable, that is - in my view - a too hefty a price to pay. Just last month Naxos re-issued the recording of Elgar conducting his own First Symphony. The recording used to be available on EMI, but was deleted about 4 years ago. I've asked them many times to re-issue it but they haven't. Thankfully Naxos now have, but in the future they might not be able to. This is just one example of many.

When you start looking at some of the great opera recordings they have bought back to life, as well as the series' on singers like Gigli, Caruso, Björling and McCormack, you realise quite quickly that if Naxos didn't do them, no-one else would.

I hope I turn out to be wrong, but at the moment I fear the worst.

Elgar conducts Elgar

including Symphony No. 1, recorded 1930

London Symphony Orchestra, Edward Elgar

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC