Back in the 1930s and '40s, a jazz musician and technological wizard with the wonderful name of William Savory found a way to record more than one thousand live performances of jazz music's all-time greats. It was only last summer, when the National Jazz Museum in Harlem acquired the cache six years after Savory's death, that the world learned the extent of the collection. According to the ABA Journal:
Among the treasures: Coleman Hawkins, the first great tenor saxophonist in jazz, playing multiple ad-lib choruses on the classic "Body and Soul." Billie Holiday, accompanied only by piano, singing a moving rubato version of "Strange Fruit," a chilling musical condemnation of lynching. The Count Basie Orchestra performing at the world's first outdoor jazz festival, the 1938 Carnival of Swing on Randall's Island in New York City. Basie's tenor sax stars, Lester Young and Herschel Evans, sharing solos on "Texas Shuffle." Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson—on harpsichord instead of his usual piano—performing "Lady Be Good!" And the list goes on.
The collection is, in a word, historic. "It is a wonderful addition to our knowledge of a great period in jazz," says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. And, Morgenstern says, "the sound quality of many of these works is amazing. Some of it is of pristine quality. It is a cultural treasure and should be made widely available."
Now comes the big "but":
The question, however, is whether that will happen anytime soon. And if it doesn't, music fans might be justified in putting the blame on copyright law. "The potential copyright liability that could attach to redistribution of these recordings is so large—and, more importantly, so uncertain—that there may never be a public distribution of the recordings," wrote David G. Post, a law professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, on the Volokh Conspiracy blog. "Tracking down all the parties who may have a copyright interest in these performances, and therefore an entitlement to royalty payments (or to enjoining their distribution), is a monumental—and quite possibly an impossible—task."
Whole fascinating and complex tale here; link via Julian Sanchez's Twitter feed. Reason on intellectual property here, including this interesting 2008 Reason.tv roundtable with MP3.com founder Michael Robertson, pop historian Martin Torgoff, and First Amendment lawyer Allan Gelbard.