Good news/bad news — free classical downloads!

Brompton’s Auction House caused quite a stir in the classical community. This firm specializes in historic musical instruments, and they provide an extensive amount of information on their website to help buyers learn more about — and understand the value of — the instruments that come up for auction.

Recently, Brompton’s introduced a line of historic recordings that visitors could download for free. Again, the goal is to help prospective buyers better understand the instruments Brompton’s offers by hearing them played by some of the greatest performers of all time.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Brompton’s is a UK firm, and folks in the US can’t download these tracks because of copyright issues.

Now let’s be clear: the works in question are all in public domain, the composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.) long dead. These recordings were made back in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and all of the artists involved are also dead. Some of these recordings are out of print, and aren’t readily available.

So what’s going on?

A difference in copyright law. In the UK, recorded works are only protected for 50 years. After that time, they fall into public domain. So in this year of 2011, recordings released in the UK before 1960 can be reissued and/or remastered by anyone.

US copyright works a little differently. Basically, anything issued before 1923 is in public domain. Anything after (depending in part on renewal) could be protected until 2047, and works after 1978 could be protected through 2067!

Think on that for a moment. A 1940 recording of a Beethoven violin concerto remains under copyright in the US for over a century. And if the record label decides not to reissue it because the market’s too small? Too bad. That recording ceases to exist — and don’t you dare try to get it someplace else!

Brompton’s offerings are going to appeal to a very small audience — even worldwide. Copyright law was originally designed to allow creators to reap the initial rewards of their works in the marketplace. And public domain was designed to eventually allow others to take those works and add their own improvements or innovations.

The UK’s law makes much more sense. Consider this: if our copyright laws had been in effect all along, then works published in 1890 would just be coming into public domain this year.

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