Understanding International Copyright Protection Through The Grateful Dead

Understanding the complexities of international copyright law can be confusing. There are several factors for determining whether a work qualifies for copyright protection abroad, what countries a work qualifies for foreign protection in, and what foreign protections are afforded to qualifying works. To understand these complexities (and to show my readers, family, friends and co-workers that I am not an IP robot), I’ve decided to explain how international copyright protections can be understood in practice through the music of my favorite band, The Grateful Dead. The Dead were not only meticulous about recording their live concerts, they also allowed their fans to make concert recordings (FYI, a great examination of the Dead’s recording culture is available in Nick Paumgarten’s recent New Yorker article). Unparalleled in the music world, the Dead permitted their fans to non-commercially record and exchange recordings of their concerts despite such practices generally considered to be copyright infringement.

Beyond providing a lifetime of amazing improvisational music, the thousands of live concert recordings available highlight important issues to consider in determining a work’s copyright protection abroad. To examine these issues, I intend to share some of my favorite Dead recordings that are available from the Internet Archive and highlight several main issues to keep in mind when determining what copyright and related-legal protections a work qualifies for abroad. So here it goes…

Qualifying Works (Playing in the Band – May 17, 1974, P.N.E. Coliseum, Vancouver, B.C.): The two year period of 1973 and 1974 was a creative high-water mark for the Dead when some of their most inspirational and exploratory music was created. This 1974 version of Playing in the Band exemplifies this period with solid interplay between the band members that delves into space and jazz-themed improvisation before reprising after nearly 20 solid minutes of exploration.

This recording also highlights the complexity of determining whether a work qualifies for international copyright protection. In international copyright law, recordings such as this 1974 recording potentially provide international copyright protection to the song’s authors (aka songwriters) and/or composers under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (Berne Convention), and its performers (aka musicians) under the Rome Convention for the Protection of Performers, Producers of Phonograms and Broadcasting Organizations (Rome Convention) and World Intellectual Property Organization Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPT).

So not to confuse you too much, in this section I will focus on examining whether this 1974 recording of Playing in the Band qualifies its author and composer, The Grateful Dead’s longtime lyricist Robert Hunter and rhythm guitarist Bob Weir respectively, for international copyright protection under the Berne Convention. For this recording to qualify for potential international copyright protection under the Berne Convention, it must have what is known as “attached.” Attachment requires that either:

  • The author of the work is a national of a Berne Convention member state
  • The author of the work is a habitual resident of a Berne Convention member state
  • The work is first published in a Berne Convention member state or is published in a Berne Convention member state within 30 days after an initial publishing in a non-Berne Convention member state

A list of Berne Convention member states is available here.

Upon attachment and if a qualifying work qualifies for copyright protection under national copyright requirements, it is entitled to protections under that nation’s copyright laws.

Based on these Berne Convention attachment requirements, both Weir and Hunter would likely qualify for international copyright protections in this recording in two ways (*For the sake of analysis, we will assume this 1974 recording was the first publishing of Playing in the Band, although it had been played since 1971). Although this 1974 concert occurred prior to the U.S. becoming a signatory to the Berne Convention and was written/composed by two U.S. nationals, the fact the recording was made in Canada (a Berne Convention member state since 1928) likely means it was first published in a Berne Convention country, qualifying it for attachment under the Berne Convention immediately on May 17, 1974 and potential protections in Berne Convention member states subject to such states’ national copyright protection requirements.

Additionally, the Berne Convention applies retroactively to qualifying works from authors and composers from new member states upon such countries accession to the Convention, subject to national qualifications. This means that once the U.S. became a contracting member of the Berne Convention on March 1, 1989, this recording likely became attached as a qualifying work for protection under the Berne Convention on that date as protections under the Convention began to apply retroactivity to prior published works by U.S. nationals that remain protectable under U.S. copyright terms of protection (see Term of Protections section below for further details). Upon such qualification, Hunter and Weir’s work would then qualify for protection in Berne Convention member states, subject to such countries’ copyright qualifications.

Performers Rights (Fire on the Mountain – October 2, 1977, Paramount Theater, Portland, Oregon): I could have chosen any song to illustrate performers rights, but I chose this recording simply because Fire on The Mountain is one of my favorite Dead songs and this 1977 version from my home state is arguably one of the best ever. Beyond being a first-rate soundboard recording that highlights Keith Godchaux’s rare playing of electric keyboards, it possesses almost psychic interplay between the band members.

This song and its 1977 performance also represent the disparity of copyright protections between authors/composers and performers in a recording. The Berne Convention only extends copyright protections in a work to authors and composers, not performers. Fire on The Mountain was written by Robert Hunter and composed by Dead percussionist Mickey Hart. Despite the entire band’s inspirational playing in this 1977 recording, every band member with the exception of Hart would have little to no international copyright protections in this recording under the Berne Convention based on their non-author/composer status.

However, the Dead members may potentially qualify for international protections in this recording under the Rome Convention or the WPPT. The Rome Convention recognizes performers rights in qualifying performance recordings by providing rights to compensation for broadcasting and reproduction of such recordings, and exclusive rights to prevent unauthorized broadcasting, fixation and reproduction. However, similar to the Berne Convention, recordings must qualify for attachment under the Rome Convention. Such attachment only qualifies for protection for its performers if either:

  • The performance takes place in a Rome Convention member state
  • It is a qualifying recording (first published or recorded in a Rome Convention member state or the producer is a national of a Rome Convention member state)
  • It is a qualifying broadcast (the broadcaster or the transmission was from a Rome Convention member state).

A list of Rome Convention member states is available here.

Unfortunately, the Rome Convention would likely not provide international copyright protections for the band members in this 1977 recording. The U.S. is not a signatory to the Rome Convention (FYI, it is mainly because the U.S. does not recognize a performer’s copyright in a recording). As this 1977 performance was performed in the U.S., by U.S. performers and not broadcasted, it does not qualify as an attached work under the Rome Convention, thereby not requiring any Rome Convention member state to recognize its copyright protection.

It is important to note that even if this recording had qualified for Rome Convention protection, it would have provided less international protections than the Berne Convention. The Rome Convention’s exclusive rights for performers in a work are optional, not required. Additionally, the Rome Convention has fewer signatories than the Berne Convention (91 Rome signatories to 166 Berne signatories). These limitations mean that fewer countries will acknowledge a performer’s rights in a qualifying recording under the Rome Convention than an author’s rights in a qualifying recording under the Berne Convention, and even if countries are Rome Convention member states, they have the ability to limit their recognition of performers’ rights in foreign recordings.

The WPPT (A list of WPPT member states is available here) may provide the band members performance rights in the 1977 recording, yet these international protections are also less comprehensive than those provided under the Berne Convention. The WPPT requires its signatories to extend rights in a recording to performers of other WPPT member states. Provided rights to performers under the WPPT include the right to compensation and exclusive rights including reproduction, distribution and performance, among others. However, like the Rome Convention, the WPPT has a smaller number of signatories (currently 91 countries) than the Berne Convention and member states can withhold implementing the WPPT’s performer rights and protections. The U.S. in particular has elected such limitations. This means all Dead band members do likely qualify for WPPT rights in this 1977 recording as performers, but they only qualify for such protections in the 91 countries, and even in those countries, their rights may be subject to limitations or exclusion, as seen in the U.S.’ non-recognition of the WPPT’s performer rights.

As a result of analyzing protection qualifications in these three treaties, only Hunter and Hart, as an author and composer respectively, qualify for potentially effective international copyright protections in this recording based on their Berne Convention protections. Unfortunately, the other members may only potentially qualify for certain rights in a limited amount of countries under the WPPT.

Term of Protections (Not Fade Away – November 2, 1979, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y.): A staple at Dead concerts, Buddy Holly and Norman Petty’s Not Fade Away was a testament to the strength and size of love (“bigger than a Cadillac” for example) and an excellent springboard into some intense jams. Late 70’s versions of Not Fade Away, such as this 1979 recording, are particularly exceptional due to their extended improvisations.

Works such as Not Fade Away also highlight an important issue in international copyright law, namely the duration to which a work is granted copyright protection. Under the Berne Convention, member states must afford copyright protection to qualifying works for the life of the author and for 50 years after their death. Contrastingly, the WPPT grants protection for performers in recordings for 50 years from when the recording was made, while the Rome Convention only affords 20 years of protection for performers from when a recording is made.

As with rights in the Fire on the Mountain recording above, the protection terms given to the authors/composers and performers in this 1979 recording are disproportionate. As widely known, Buddy Holly died in a horrific plane crash in 1959 (which also killed Richie Vallens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson). Petty died in 1984. Based on the date of their deaths, Holly’s copyright protections as an author of Not Fade Away under the Berne Convention expired in 2009, while Petty’s rights will continue to remain active until 2034. For all of the Dead band members, their protections under the Rome Convention as performers expired in 1999 (FYI, they would not have had any rights under the Rome Convention anyway – see Performers Rights section above) and their rights in this recording under the WPPT are set to expire in 2029.

However, it is important to note that some Berne Convention member states may provide extended copyright protection terms for authors. For example, the U.S. and Australia extend copyright protection rights for the life of the author plus 70 years after their death. If qualifying as protectable works under the Berne Convention and both U.S. and Australian copyright law, Holly and Petty’s copyright protections in Not Fade Away will remain active in the U.S. and Australia until 2029 and 2054 respectively.

Conclusion: Besides providing some spectacular recordings, I hope this short analysis helps to understand some main issues in international copyright law that can assist in determining the extent of foreign protections in a particular work.

What are your favorite Dead shows? What international copyright issues are you facing?

**Important Note**: The legal issues highlighted herein are hypothetical. Additionally, this article is neither approved nor endorsed by The Grateful Dead, Nick Paumgarten, the New Yorker magazine, the Internet Achieve or any related parties.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Understanding International Copyright Protection Through The Grateful Dead | Biotech Boardwalk

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