From the February 2014 issue of Offbeat
The Paramount Wonder Cabinet, a massive collection of seminal jazz and blues recordings from the Paramount catalogue reissued jointly by Revenant Records and Jack White’s Third Man Records, has become the subject of a copyright-infringement dispute in New Orleans.
According to Lars Edegran, the George H. Buck, Jr. (GHB) Jazz Foundation owns rights to nearly 800 tracks on the set’s $400 first edition, The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917–1932, as Buck purchased the 1920s-era recordings of artists including Louis Armstrong and Ma Rainey in 1970. Edegran maintains that Third Man and Revenant never obtained a license from the foundation to sell the recordings.
“GHB Jazz Foundation, a non-profit organization that specializes in keeping jazz and other American musical forms available to the public by issuing LPs, CDs, books and videos, claims ownership of the rights to the Paramount (and its associated labels) sound recordings. GHB purchased the Paramount catalogue from John Steiner of Chicago in 1970,” Edegran declared in a statement.
“Steiner himself acquired Paramount from the Wisconsin Chair Company (the original owner) in the late 1940s. There are documents for both of these transactions. Sound recordings published before 1972 are not under federal copyright but are covered under common law or state anti-piracy statues.Third Man/Revenant Records claim that Paramount recordings are in the public domain.”
Legally, sound recordings are generally not in the public domain, although musical compositions can be. The Copyright Act of 1976 created federal copyright protection for recordings made after 1972. It also included an extension mandating that until 2067, state law protect recordings made before 1972.
Perhaps more important to the GHB Foundation’s case, however, is proof of ownership, which Dean Blackwood, the co-founder of Revenant Records, says has not been provided.
“We informed the foundation that we would gladly come to an agreement with them if they could prove ownership of the recordings,” Blackwood wrote in an email. “To date, they haven’t produced anything that proves ownership. And although there is a more than 50-year history of labels large and small reissuing this material without their involvement, we remain open to discussions with them if they can prove ownership of the recordings.”
To build a strong case, GHB Foundation likely needs to both prove ownership and debunk the claim that other labels have released these recordings without their okay.
“Pre-1972 sound recordings are a large issue of litigation right now. It’s kind of a hot topic,” explains Jason Koransky, a Chicago-based lawyer specializing in copyright and trademark disputes who previously edited DownBeat magazine.
“They should be able to produce a written [ownership] agreement that shows it applies to the actual recordings,” he says. “If there truly has been a 50-year history of labels releasing this material and not paying for it or trying to acquire the rights to do so from whoever owned it at the time, then certain legal claims can be made. You can’t suddenly assert rights over something that you have not asserted rights over in 50 years.”
Responding to Blackwood’s contention about 50 years’ worth of unlicensed Paramount reissues, Edegran points out that unlike this box set, previous releases have been released under the terms of license agreements.
“Paramount recordings have been issued under license agreements for a very long time going back to the first owners, the Wisconsin Chair Company who licensed material to Columbia and Decca and others,” he says. “The next owner of Paramount, John Steiner, licensed Paramount recordings to Biograph, Milestone, Riverside and others. GHB Jazz Foundation has license agreements with Sony, Rhino, Rykodisc, Shout, Universal, Fantasy, Fox Music, HBO to name a few. All these companies recognize our ownership of Paramount Records. It is true that a number of small labels have used Paramount material without our permission but there has been no infringement on the scale of the box set issued by Third Man/ Revenant Records—close to 800 tracks of Paramount recordings.”
Edegran is currently in the midst of legal proceedings with the labels on behalf of the foundation.
The second edition of the Paramount Wonder Cabinet is due out in November of 2014.