March 22, 2007

Guile of the Dead

Alexander Temple Wolkonsky Rachmaninoff Wanamaker is the great-great-grandson of Sergei Rachmaninoff. And the 21-year-old University of Arizona student is about to take over Rachmaninoff's legacy—and that includes rearranging Sergei's works so they can be re-copyrighted.
"It's as little rearrangement as possible, preferably," he explained.

Wanamaker said the family already has approached a few composers about doing the rearrangement. "We're in the process now of having the music rearranged so that we can re-establish the rights and generations can enjoy it for futures to come," he said.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I would think that generations would be able to enjoy the music for futures to come regardless of whether anybody's making any money off of it. Sergei died in 1943—that means his post-1923 works (including the Symphonic Dances, the Paganini Rhapsody, and the Fourth Piano Concerto) already won't start going into the public domain in the U.S. until 2019. And now, four generations removed, they're trying to make sure that the royalties on those—and everything else—keep coming for another 95 years? (Actually, based on the fact that any "rearrangements" would probably be "works for hire," they might fall under the 120-year corporate copyright term.) That's pushing copyright's "temporary monopoly" to possibly over two centuries, in some cases. From the article:
Wanamaker is quick to dispel concerns that the family will increase the fees for orchestras to rent and play Rachmaninoff. Actually, he says, the cost will be less because there will be fewer hands in the pot.

"What we would like to do is actually lower the prices," he said, noting that over the past 30 years, royalties have generated at least $50 million in income that's divided between the family and the publishing firms. Without the publishing firms, the family would get a bigger cut and could afford to drop the price, he reasoned.
Even a two-percent cut of that is more money then I'll ever have, ever. Can't he just invest what he's got, and use the interest to pay for scotch and Jay-Z albums? The ridiculousness of the copyright regime in this country never ceases to amaze me.

11 comments:

Elaine Fine said...

This is only the beginning of the cultural price we have to pay for Sonny Bono's copyright law. This law makes it nearly impossible for contemporary composers to publish songs set to published texts written by anyone from the 20th century. It makes trying to write an opera based on a contemporary text a financial and legal nightmare.

Thanks for bringing this Rachmaninoff family fiasco to my attention. Why does money always have to get in the way of music, and how could the great grandson of such a wonderful musical soul be so opportunistic? He must have gotten that from the other side of the family.

Alex Ross said...

What an obnoxious little twerp! He can't really get away with this, can he? Stravinsky of course kept his works in copyright by fiddling with them, but this kid ain't no Stravinsky. What composers has he been talking to? I would recommend:

1. Hans-Joachim Hespos, composer of "seiltanz," which requires an oil tank with a five-millimeter-thick casing and a welding torch;
2. Dean Drummond of the Newband ensemble;
3. Masami Akita, aka Merzbow;
4. Milton Babbitt.

Susan said...

How can this be happening?

Can't we get Al Gore to work on saving Rachmaninoff...along with the planet?

Please bring me some oxygen. Quick.

Matthew said...

In response to Alex: I wouldn't put anything past the Copyright office interms of what he can and can't do, but my sense is that those works already in the public domain will still be available in PD editions (Dover, etc.).

Jessica Duchen points out what concerns me: the whole question of competing editions and licensing fees for recordings and broadcasts, especially in the light of the Hyperion fiasco a couple years ago.

I would love to turn Babbitt loose on this oeuvre. He'd probably come up with a handful of really good pop songs—I actually rather enjoy "All By Myself."

Alex Ross said...

Yes — party boy could copyright his own new versions of Rach works, but I don't see how he could stop people from using works in the public domain.

Really, all Babbitt would need to do would be to serialize dynamics, and you'd have a lively new ouevre. Although of course you can already get this effect in performances conducted by Lorin Maazel.

Seth Gordon said...

The kid with five names shouldn't worry. Disney will lobby to extend the time period every time Mickey is about to go PD. And they'll succeed, because they're Disney, and they'll parade horrific "what-if" scenarios before Congress of salacious evildoers making their own flicks with Mickey and Minnie and using them to lure children into a life of drugs abuse and kiddie porn. Rach, Ives, and the rest of the gang from that general era will be along for the ride. I'm pretty convinced that if something isn't PD now, it probably never will be.

And if by some miracle that didn't happen... nothing could stop people from using the old, authoritative (and free) arrangements. So why buy the cow? Seems like a fruitless exercise and a waste of whatever they're spending.

That said, if they want me to write one of their arrangements... I'm sure we can work out a fair price.

Anna said...

Another way to look at it. If a family is lucky enough to have a large home or family heirlooms to pass down through the generations, there would be an outcry if that was suddenly taken away from them after 'x' number of years.
If by adding a small extension to the west wing, or making a minor alteration in some way, they were able to get around that law, then you can't blame them for trying.
I suspect that the initiator of that wealth, be it musical or any other, would want their own family to continue to benefit long after their death, that's human nature and down to us all wanting to protect our genes.
We should remember that the originals will always remain. Many recordings are available, scores etc. so nothing is actually lost.
It may also be that the alterations will be minimal, just enough to allow the family to retain control. We'll have to wait and see.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson said...

But Anna, copyright does not exist to protect the interests of 'family heirlooms'. It exists to protect the interests of authors (composers, artists, etc), to ensure that they receive ample financial compensation from their works. A composer's artistic legacy is categorically NOT the same as a family home: the copyright legacy of a composer's work is finitely determined; a piece of property, like a house, is yours to own until someone buys it off you, or you die and it passes on as determined in your will.

Anna said...

Tim, I fully agree with all that you have said. As I am married to a musician/composer I am fully aware that copyright is there to protect our financial interests, and it does.
My point really, was that for the family, it must be difficult to have (nearly) reached the point when the music enters the public domain. If they can see a way around that then you can't blame them for trying.
From my own position, I would like to think that my husbands success could go on to benefit my great, great grandchildren, but I realise that there is a cut off point.

Sophie said...

The so-called "Rachmaninov family fiasco," as Elaine Fine has so eloquently labeled it, is in fact nothing other than an attempt by the composer's remaining family to secure the legacy he so painstakingly worked to provide them with.

Rachmaninov no doubt desired that the public benefit from his work; however, his family was always his primary concern. He expended an extraordinary amount of effort to ensure that his family would be provided for after his death.

It is therefore the prerogative, right, and duty of the family to protect his legacy as they see fit. For in the end, who understands Rachmaninov better than his direct surviving relatives?

(And from what I understand, their intentions are not to deny the public access to his works, but rather to regain control of property that is theirs by right).

Jonathan said...

Anne, it's more than just needing a cut-off point. A composition can't be 'taken away' like a family heirloom can. It's merely copied and the benefits shared, not lost. What you've lost when a copyright expires is a means to make money over something that you never put effort into in the first place. And if you did, well, then you must already be dead and shouldn't care. That's the point of copyright laws as originally intended. They were for a period of 14 years for the "sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending" the copies of their "maps, charts, and books" for a term of 14 years, with the right to renew for one additional 14 year term should the copyright holder still be alive. They were meant so that a person could support *themself* off of their work. Not endless generations of descendants. That's what inheritance is for. Copyright duration is too long as it is, thanks to Disney and their refusal to let go of Mickey. We're going to see this drama unfold again soon, with the same actors. And they have enough money to buy off the politicians, so we're going to end up with indefinite copyrights thanks our corporate lobbyists, regardless of what really is in the public's best interest.