Monday, May 31, 2004

The joys of copyright

Over in the comments section of Cathy Seipp's blog (where Cathy's daughter Cecile Dubois was guest blogging), I this afternoon found myself having a conversation with Tim Minear (who wrote many episodes of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff Angel) about the forthcoming DVDs of the recent television series Wonderfalls, which despite great reviews was cancelled after only a few episodes early this year. Apparently one obstacle to getting the DVDs out is some of the songs used in the television series: the producers do not have the rights to for the music as it applies to a DVD release, and obtaining it would be too expensive, so the music has to be removed from the television episodes and it has to be replaced with less expensive music.

Tim says that this is quite a common situation. Given the way in which music copyrights work, I can believe this. In particular recorded music is subject to two copyrights, one belonging to the composer and the other to the performer. The copyright of the performer (ie the record company) is much more restrictive than that of the composer (ie the publishing company), which means that the performer can charge whatever he wants to allow use of the song, and can prevent its use if he doesn't want to. The copyright of the composer is subject to compulsory license, however, which means that the composer cannot stop use of the song, and cannot choose how much to charge for it - this is set by the copyright laws. This is why you will sometimes hear a new version of a familiar song on a movie soundtrack - it means that the producers were unable to obtain rights to the music they wanted to use and therefore had someone else record a new version of the same song, which nobody can stop them doing but which can be much cheaper). And in many instances the copyright law that applies to the broadcast of music is not the same as that that applies to selling recordings of music.

Which reminds me of another, older, example of this. It applies to the radio rather than television, for which the rules are different again, so it's not quite the same kind of thing, although it's close.

Shortly after Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series was broadcast in the UK in 1978, the producers wanted to put the series out as an LP record. (The CD player existed in labs in Eindhoven at that point, but was not yet a consumer product). This was offered to BBC records, who in one of many acts of legendary cluelessness passed, but another record company picked it up.

Copyright law contains various provisions for the broadcast of music on the radio. In some instances it falls under fair use, and in other instances compulsory licences apply. In any event, it was relatively easy to use quite famous music for the radio series, but it was legally much harder if you were going to put it on a record. Resources were limited in terms of paying for the rights to use music on the record, and it thus wasn't possible to release recordings of the original radio series including the original music. Also, the original series had 29-30 minute episodes, and you can only fit 22-23 minutes on one side of an LP record. So the radio series was remixed with different music, cut in length, and substantially rerecorded for its release on LP. There are many mutually contradictory versions of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the LP records are one of the more obscure ones. They weren't especially obscure at the time - in fact they sold very well - but they are something of a collector's item now due to the fact that records are now an obsolete medium. The Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy was later released on CD, but this time actually by the BBC. This time round there was a lot more money, and it was possible to obtain the rights to all the music of the original radio series (and there is no difficulty fitting two 30 minute episodes on a CD, given that CDs fit a maximum of 74 minutes of recording). So the CDs were (and are) of the original radio series, not the remixed and rerecorded LP record version.

Most people would agree that this is for the best: the radio series was the original and in some ways definitive version after all. This is possibly true, but in a way it is also a shame that the LP versions have faded into obscurity (although they are something of a collector's item). For they are actually very good. The radio programs were a bit rushed, but for the LP versions there was time to fix a few things that had not been got right the first time. And in one or two places this shows. So if you are a serious Hitchhiker's collector (I'm not) you probably do need a set of the LPs.

And it really seems necessary to find a set of the LPs to listen to this version. Because although it is easy to find MP3s of the original radio series (ie ripped versions of the CDs) it is not for the LP versions. As programs that originally went out on vinyl records and which have never been released in digital format, they are a little hard for people to rip.

Update: A little further reading informs me that episode three of Hitchhikers released on CD does contain a brief cut due to the the difficulty of obtaining the rights to Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd and Rock and Roll Music by the Beatles. (I doubt that obtaining the rights to Also Sprach Zarathustra would be difficult, although this is also mentioned in the article).

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