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Carter Family and copyrights

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Richie 13 Dec 08 - 08:35 PM
GUEST,Literatour - Verlag Bär - Switzerland 30 Jul 11 - 10:30 AM
Artful Codger 30 Jul 11 - 04:47 PM
GUEST,ADalton 03 Mar 14 - 08:14 PM
GUEST 04 Mar 14 - 01:00 AM
GUEST,Bill M 27 May 15 - 08:31 PM
Joe Offer 27 May 15 - 10:18 PM
GUEST,leeneia 28 May 15 - 05:14 PM
Joe Offer 28 May 15 - 07:09 PM
GUEST,leeneia 29 May 15 - 09:39 AM
GUEST,Guest.Steve 28 Apr 16 - 02:47 PM
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Subject: Carter Family and copyrights
From: Richie
Date: 13 Dec 08 - 08:35 PM


I'm helping look at teh origins of the Carter Family songs. There have been several commects about copyrights. Since it's better not to clutter up that thread with copyright issues, I'd like you're comments here:

What's interesting to me is that some of the Carter's most famous songs like the Circle Be Unbroken; Wildwood Flower, Worried Man Blues
are freely used even though the arrangements by the Carters are unique and what we sing-publish etc are based directly on them.

Yes they are based on other songs but you could say that about 90% of their songs. Yet their arrangements are basically standard use for the certain songs (Worried Man Blues etc.) and no one questions copyright infringement.

On their lesser known arrangements to quote the Artful Codger in the other thread:

"However, a caveat:
Unless you enjoy litigation, bear in mind that the Carters altered many of the songs they sang not only to fit their particular style, but expressly to make their arrangements copyrightable--they were urged to do this by Ralph Peer, their agent/manager. Granted, A.P.'s copyrights often infringed on the copyrights of others, whether intentionally or not; that is now immaterial. In preparing a song, the Carters frequently changed melody lines, chord progressions and lyrics; these changes are identifiable enough that a court might easily detect the Carters' still-copyrighted contributions in your arrangements, unless you derived directly from original or p.d. materials."

This to me is the confusing part, where did the verses for "Circle Be Unbroken" come from: The Carter Family. Did they write them? We don't know. Is their copyright valid?----NO

Waht do you think?

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Subject: RE: Carter Family and copyrights
From: GUEST,Literatour - Verlag Bär - Switzerland
Date: 30 Jul 11 - 10:30 AM

The Performance or musical style is never in Copyright.

What is protected for 70 years are the rights of the writers on the words (lyrics) and the music (the melody, not the style!)

This is the legal situation in old Europe where we live and sing your beautiful american songs...

To create new rights and make money even the Carters a wrote a few lines more into traditional songs - the same did Leadbelly and the writers of Johnny Cash, when they invented some of "their" songs from the basis of old material long time ago sung by negros...

Dr. Raphael Baer

(see: facebook)

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Subject: RE: Carter Family and copyrights
From: Artful Codger
Date: 30 Jul 11 - 04:47 PM

Distinctive arrangements are certainly copyrightable, being original work, even if based on previously existing material. Such copyrights don't preclude someone else from creating his own arrangement, as long as that arrangement doesn't directly incorporate the copyrighted distinctive bits which the first arranger added to the base work--and presuming that both arrangers got permission from whomever holds to the copyrights to the original work. That is my understanding of US law, though I'm admittedly not a lawyer and if you solely act on my "legal advice", you're an idjit.

Performance is copyrightable only as a recording--though you have no right to record someone else's performance without permission--, but arrangement and performance are two separate aspects. Musical style as a generic entity is not copyrightable, but an arrangement is musical style applied in a specific way to a specific work, along with other creative aspects. Check most liner notes and you'll see clearly that arrangements are copyrighted--even when they're so derivative the claim may be contestable.

New lyrics are certainly copyrightable, even if they form only a portion of the work overall. Similarly, new melody variants which are substantially different from the original or "known" tunes are copyrightable, as are distinctive bridges and other musical material not present in the original work. The fact these original contributions derive in part from an established work makes little difference. The line between "derivative" and "original contribution" is unfortunately a hazy one that may only be decided rather arbitrarily in court.

Ideas are not copyrightable. I can apply the same basic idea to a work as you, as long as my concrete expression (wording, tune, arrangement) does not infringe on your copyrights.

A difficulty with the Carter copyrights is that they never declared what part of a work they had an actual right to copyright. They just slapped a blanket copyright on the whole damn song. From the legal perspective, as long as a copyright holder can demonstrate that, given the similarities, you've copied from their "original work", your only defense is to show previous or concurrent material proving that those areas of overlap were not added by the Carters. Even if you can show that the Carters had no valid claim to some parts of the work (like the basic lyrics or tune), it doesn't invalidate their potential copyright to the remainder, and it is your responsibility, not the claimants, to prove that your work doesn't infringe on those other areas. It's a messy situation, especially given that, after so many years, few people are living who might testify one way or the other, and written records or recordings that might document how a song had evolved and disseminated after its creation--things that might prove the Carters had made no clearly distinctive contributions--no longer exist or may never have existed. The excessive terms of modern US (etc.) copyrights make this situation even more preposterous.

All that said, it is undoubtedly true that technical copyright infringements are numerous and often flagrant, either from ignorance that such copyrights exist, from ignorance of copyright law, or from deliberate violation (the "do it first, ask permission later" approach). And I believe that for a copyright holder to maintain a copyright, he must demonstrate that he has been reasonably diligent in protecting his copyrights from most previous infringers. Thus, if a work has been allowed to wander around for decades unchallenged as "traditional", or if the Victor company and successors have been lax in pursuing copyright violations, they'll be hard-pressed to win cases of later infringement. Not that they can't bankrupt you in the trying: that's the modern way copyright suits are decided.

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Subject: RE: Carter Family and copyrights
From: GUEST,ADalton
Date: 03 Mar 14 - 08:14 PM

Does anyone here know if the Carter Family copyrights were all renewed?

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Subject: RE: Carter Family and copyrights
Date: 04 Mar 14 - 01:00 AM

I would be very, very surprised if they were not!

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Subject: RE: Carter Family and copyrights
From: GUEST,Bill M
Date: 27 May 15 - 08:31 PM

Does anyone know where the copyrights are being held for the Carter family? Who holds them?

Bill M

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Subject: RE: Carter Family and copyrights
From: Joe Offer
Date: 27 May 15 - 10:18 PM

Hi, Bill -
The Carter Family copyrights are held by Peer International Corporation. Ralph Peer is the man who recorded the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers at Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927.

The Music Publishers Association says that Peer International rights are managed by Hal Leonard:
    Hal Leonard Corporation
    PO Box 13819
    Milwaukee WI 53213
    Clearance Representative:

I'm an associate editor of the Rise Again Songbook, which will be published by Hal Leonard in August 2015. Our Hal Leonard licensing guy said not to bother trying to disprove Carter copyrights, but I didn't get an explanation why since he was taking care of them. Now I see that Hal Leonard manages the copyrights, so maybe we had no need to bother challenging them.


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Subject: RE: Carter Family and copyrights
From: GUEST,leeneia
Date: 28 May 15 - 05:14 PM

Thanks are due to Richard Bridge, who told me to use the word 'derivative' when searching copyright law to learn about musical arrangements.

If you go to, you can download a PDF of U.S. copyright law. Then search [CtrlF]for 'derivative'. You will learn that a musical arrangement of an existing piece is a derivative. Later you will find this:

"The copyright in a compilation or derivative work extends only to the material contributed by the author of such work, as distinguished from the preexisting material employed in the work, and does not imply any exclusive right in the preexisting material.

The copyright in such work [the new arrangement] is independent of, and does not affect or enlarge the scope, duration, ownership, or subsistence of, any copyright protection in the preexisting material."

So if, for example, the Carters recorded "Wildwood Flower", a song from the 1880's, and if the Carters did an accompaniment where somebody ran up and down the bass strings in harmony while somebody else did triplets in the treble, then the Carters can copyright that accompaniment. But they cannot claim a copyright on "Wildwood Flower" itself, either the melody or the lyrics.

Meanwhile, we all know what folkies are like. Give a folkie a song, some chord symbols, and a guitar and every person will quickly produce a new accompaniment for the tune. Fingers will fly over the keyboard, and if you asked at the end what was played for a given measure, they couldn't tell. (I play the same way myself.) Trying to copyright playing of this nature is like trying to map a swarm of bees.

Joe, there are penalties for violating a legit copyright, but there are no penalties for claiming a copyright to which one is not entitled. It doesn't surprise me that Hal Leonard is throwing their weight around.

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Subject: RE: Carter Family and copyrights
From: Joe Offer
Date: 28 May 15 - 07:09 PM

Leeneia, I can't say that the Hal Leonard people are "throwing their weight around." I've worked with their copyright guy almost daily for the last nine months, and he does an excellent job and tries his best to be honest.

But since they're publishing our book and they manage the Carter Family copyrights, what good does it do them to fight to have Carter Family songs declared public domain? Admittedly, the rights belong to Peer International and Hal Leonard simply administers the rights, but why should they shoot themselves in the foot by fighting the copyrights?


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Subject: RE: Carter Family and copyrights
From: GUEST,leeneia
Date: 29 May 15 - 09:39 AM

I agree with you, Joe, that as a practical matter, it pays to go along with Hal Leonard, but the fact is that they do not have the copyright to the melody or lyrics of any public domain song. The accompaniment, perhaps, if anybody ever pinned it down, but not the old work itself. When pressed on this simple matter, they refuse to discuss it. A bully's technique.

I have before me a copy of their 'Hymn Fake Book.' They claim to have copyright in a song called 'God Moves in a Mysterious Way.' It was first published in 1635.

On the next page, we see 'God of My Life,' a traditional Scottish melody arranged by someone who died in 1872. HL claims copyright in that. On page 151 they claim copyright in 'Wie Schoen Leuchtet,' composed by Philip Nicolai, who died in 1608.

Hal Leonard Co. may have added chord symbols to these melodies, but chord symbols cannot be copyrighted. (Not to mention that others have been using the same chords for centuries.)

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Subject: RE: Carter Family and copyrights
From: GUEST,Guest.Steve
Date: 28 Apr 16 - 02:47 PM

Good points all, and little wonder that no responses were posted, as most seem to have little understanding of copyright law as applied to music.

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