30 days of ideas – 18: Public domain music collection


Photo by Beverly & Pack

I’m sure you’re familiar with the term ‘public domain’. It refers to works that have come to the end of their legal copyright period, and therefore now belong to no-one and everyone. You’d be surprised how much music falls into that category.

If a work is in the public domain, it means that anyone can do whatever they want with it. They can perform it, copy it, play it in public – or even mass-produce and sell it without having to pay anyone any royalties.

This is what accounts for the glut of Frank Sinatra tunes available for sale on the internet, as described in this post by Anthony Herron.

This year, a lot of really important records enter the public domain – especially in Britain, where the length of copyright on recordings has not, as yet, been extended. Fifty years ago, some of the biggest-selling and most important jazz records of all time were being released, and rock was coming into its own.

I don’t see this as a problem. In fact – I see this as a great opportunity. There’s a good reason for a finite copyright period. Copyright’s supposed to incentivise people to make new stuff, not to make sure they profit from it indefinitely.

And the reason you want to set things up so there’s an incentive for people to make cool stuff? So that everyone gets to live in a society where they can share in the knowledge, art and inventions that enrich their lives.

So… if the point is to have a public domain so that everyone benefits, why not set it up so that everyone benefits?

Music you already own
I propose a site where public domain works are simply available free to all people. You want to download and listen to a Miles Davis tune recorded in 1956? That’s absolutely fine. You already own it. That’s what public domain means. Let us help you find that, tell you some interesting things about it, and tell you about some other music that relates to it that you also already own.

I propose a not-for-profit charitable project designed to collect and present public domain recorded musical works in a useful, usable and attractive manner (rather than that morass of ugly, cheap and nasty cash-ins), collected into interesting compilations, accompanied by thorough liner notes and essays, and beautifully designed as if for sale at a premium – but actually simply available to whoever wants it at no cost.

Nobody said it would be easy
I’m aware that there are difficulties in this idea. It would also cost a good deal of money to make this free to the public, though there’s a case to be made that something like this occupies the same sort of territory as art galleries and libraries. And, of course, there are things that could be made and sold in support of the mission to give as much public domain music to as many people as possible.

Also, works in the public domain in some places are not in others. Of course, there are many sites that already have regional restrictions on them so that’s not insoluble.

I’m also aware that there are already some projects to collect and present the public domain online. Archive.org springs to mind.

But the purpose of this is to track down, collect, categorise, curate and actively promote the dissemination of works that we all own by law and by right.

Selling records for nothing
Ideally, this imaginary not-for-profit organisation would package, promote and actively propagate public domain recordings, not simply archive, preserve and ‘make available’. I want them to actively ‘sell’ these works as if they were charging money – but then not charge money.

The point of public domain is not simply so that people who didn’t ever own the rights now get to profiteer. That’s partly true, and there are good reasons for that to be the case. But it’s mostly so that things that were once locked down for commercial-only purposes now become a part of our collective culture.

And I think that’s something worth actively pursuing and promoting, not simply ‘allowing’. At present, you are welcome to have and use any public domain works in any way you see fit. Good luck finding out what they are and locating decent versions of them.

I’m not talking about a museum, and nor am I talking about dusty old relics that sound like they were recorded onto a bit of shellac with a rusty nail. I’m talking about a rich and interesting resource full of high quality, interesting and relevant pieces of music.

Think in terms of public broadcasting at its best – only for online music.

Table of contents for 30 Days of Ideas

  1. The other way of following first
  2. Now we’re up and dancing
  3. 30 days of ideas – 01: Keymash
  4. 30 days of ideas – 02: Radio Alerts
  5. 30 days of ideas – 03: Only Famous (a romantic comedy)
  6. 30 days of ideas – 04: Modcasts
  7. 30 days of ideas – 05: Numberless Calendar
  8. 30 days of ideas – 06: SpringCleanr
  9. 30 days of ideas – 07: Street Gallery
  10. 30 days of ideas – 08: Smart Business Cards
  11. 30 days of ideas – 09: Recordings in Concert
  12. 30 days of ideas – 10: Vinyl scanner
  13. 30 days of ideas – 11: Photo Stack-and-Scan
  14. 30 days of ideas – 12: A Box of Cool
  15. 30 days of ideas – 13: Karaoke-Tube Celebstar Idol
  16. 30 days of ideas – 14: I Made You A Tape
  17. 30 days of ideas – 15: Newspaper download codes
  18. 30 days of ideas – 16: Pebble Splash
  19. 30 days of ideas – 17: Digital radio, somewhere useful
  20. 30 days of ideas – 18: Public domain music collection
  21. 30 days of ideas – 19: Blog cast-list automator
  22. 30 days of ideas – 20: The Retirement Pile
  23. 30 days of ideas – 21: Nationalise EMI
  24. 30 days of ideas – 22: The Stainless Steel Rat (the movie)
  25. 30 days of ideas – 23: WordPress Bandcampify template
  26. 30 days of ideas – 24: Rollercoasters as public transport
  27. 30 days of ideas – 25: Next-gen personalised music radio
  28. 30 days of ideas – 26: New Music Trust
  29. 30 days of ideas – 27: Tamagotchi Gardening
  30. 30 days of ideas – 28: Charity shop clothing subscription
  31. 30 days of ideas – 29: ‘Now Playing’ social music app
  32. 30 days of ideas – 30: House of Spare Ideas
  33. Mixtape for You by Ray Kuyvenhoven
  34. What can you do in 30 days?

2 Responses to “30 days of ideas – 18: Public domain music collection”

  1. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested in packaging up old recordings and selling them, but I sure would like to be able to record my own version of a number of old tunes and sell them.

    Alas, I live in Mickey Mouse land (where the ghost of Sonny Bono still haunts) and I can’t do that.

  2. Dennis Collopy says:

    Interesting observations but remember just because a sound recording is out of copyright and in the public domain in the UK does not mean the same can be said in other parts of the world like USA ( where it is 95 years rather than 50 years).
    More importantly even if the recording is in the public domain , the underlying musical works – the songs themselves – are almost certainly not in the public domain and as such a downloading recordings more than 50 years old still usually require some way of paying the original songwriters and music publishers who are still protected.

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