This New York Times article is good news...until you get to the end. While the National Jazz Museum In Harlem would like to make this extraordinary collection of radio performances public they have a rough time ahead of them. Copyright law, which seems to apply even 70 years after these performances were recorded imposes the responsibility of tracking down each and every rights holder. This is at the very least a daunting task and almost certainly an expensive one, both in terms of time and money.
Once again, copyright law achieves the exact opposite of what was intended when provisions for it were first made in the Constitution. The "temporary monopoly" which, back then, was meant to encourage creation and to enlarge the cultural commons, now puts barriers between us and our cultural heritage.
For decades jazz cognoscenti have talked reverently of “the Savory Collection.” Recorded from radio broadcasts in the late 1930s by an audio engineer named William Savory, it was known to include extended live performances by some of the most honored names in jazz — but only a handful of people had ever heard even the smallest fraction of that music, adding to its mystique
After 70 years that wait has now ended. This year the National Jazz Museum in Harlem acquired the entire set of nearly 1,000 discs, made at the height of the swing era, and has begun digitizing recordings of inspired performances by Louis Armstrong,Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Bunny Berigan, Harry James and others that had been thought to be lost forever. Some of these remarkable long-form performances simply could not be captured by the standard recording technology of the time...
Mr. Schoenberg said the museum planned to make as much as possible of the Savory collection publicly available at the museum and eventually online. But the copyright status of the recorded material is complicated, which could inhibit plans to share the music. While the museum has title to Mr. Savory’s discs as physical objects, it does not possess rights to the music on the discs.
“The short answer is that ownership is unclear,” said June M. Besek, executive director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at the Columbia University School of Law. “There was never any arrangement for distribution of copies” in contracts between performers and radio stations in the 1930s, she explained, “because it was never envisioned that there would be such a distribution, so somewhere between the radio station and the band is where the ownership would lay.”
At 70 years’ remove, however, the bands, and even some of the radio networks that broadcast the performances, no longer exist, and tracking down all the heirs of the individual musicians who played in the orchestras is nearly impossible.