Copyrights–and All That Jazz

What happens when you put free stuff up on the Internet that turns out not to be free? What follows is a tangled tale of copyright infringement. The behavior involved is decidedly unheinous, but it’s decidedly portentous as well. A company in Michigan was collecting information on music for a couple of Internet sites. The company contracted with a traditional publisher to collect the material in a book. The catch: the original authors of a good part of the articles actually owned the rights to them and hadn’t given their permission.

Our story begins with The All-Music Guide to Jazz, published last year to the consternation of quite a few people. “It’s a nice book,” says local jazz writer Art Lange. “It’s just that they should have got the permission from the original writers.” Lange, a onetime Reader contributor and a former editor of Down Beat, is president of the Jazz Journalists of America. At last fall’s Jazz Times convention in New York City, Lange was designated by his constituency to find out what had happened.

He called up the book’s publisher, which said that it had a contract with Matrix Software, out of Big Rapids, Michigan. Lange thereupon talked to Matrix president Michael Erlewine, head of a self-described bunch of “hippies and data freaks” who design data-base software, some of it for companies in the music biz. At an Internet site (it’s currently down, but will be back up as a World Wide Web page called within a couple of weeks) and a large CompuServe forum, the company tries to collect as much info as possible on any sort of popular and unpopular music: records, song lists, articles, and so on. While Matrix hires a lot of writers, it also supplements the files with excerpts from magazines like Down Beat, Jazz Is, Coda, Jazz Times, and others, which the company uses online and in the published All-Music guides. (Lange says that perhaps a thousand articles and excerpts, from something more than 150 writers, were eventually used in the book.) “We always get a signed statement [of permission],” says Erlewine.

Well, sort of. The arrangements by which writers contract with magazines and newspapers basically fall into three categories. Generally, work done by staff people of a particular magazine is owned by the magazine. Free-lancers, by contrast, generally own the rights to their work after it’s been published the first time. A third category, relatively rare in mainstream journalism, is “work for hire”: this is free-lance material to which the magazine or newspaper specifically buys permanent rights.

Frank Alkyer, editorial director and associate publisher of Down Beat, based in Elmhurst, says that Matrix asked for the magazine’s permission to use “excerpts” from its pages. Perhaps to protect itself, the magazine now makes rather a fine distinction about the permission it gave. “We said yes, but they assumed that we owned all the rights to the material in question,” says Alkyer, somewhat primly. “Our permission was only half the equation.”

Neither party, it seems, was asking the right questions. Most of Matrix’s material is generated by work-for-hire agreements; perhaps that conceptual operating difference is what created the problem. The matter is further muddied by the “excerpts” business. Alkyer says that the magazine thought it would be seeing quotes from its reviews and its star ratings online. “We’re thrilled when anyone wants to mention Down Beat,” he says. In fact, Matrix often used full reviews.

A similar scenario happened with Jazz Times magazine. Ironically enough, Jazz Times associate publisher Lee Mergner volunteered a meeting room at the magazine’s convention to Lange and the jazz writers group, only to find his publication’s actions on the hot seat. It takes a while, but Mergner finally admits that Jazz Times has traditionally bought copy from its writers on a free-lance basis as well, though that has changed recently.

While it seems that carelessness rather than venality was the problem, writers will note that neither magazine was unduly protective of its contributors’ copyrights. So what’s to be done? Erlewine stresses–and Lange goes out of his way to point out–that Matrix immediately took action when informed of the indiscretion. “He’s been very remorseful,” Lange says of Erlewine. “We removed the stuff from the services as fast as humanly possible,” Erlewine says. “We’ve written to all of the authors we could get addresses for and asked if we could get permission for the material; 90-something percent said fine.”

The amount of money involved is very small, and the writers aren’t going to sue; but negotiations with the magazines continue. Lange notes that incidents like this will become increasingly common in the near future. “We don’t know what the shelf life of the material on the electronic network is,” he says. The National Writers Union might offer the journalists some help as well. “They want to be in on whatever legal precedents are being set,” Lange adds.

Biddy’s Is Back

Venerable Biddy Mulligan’s reopens this weekend. The Irish tavern, just south of the city line on North Sheridan, has been a watering hole for nearly 50 years, a music-scene cog for half that. Chip Covington ran the bar in what might have been its glory days in the late 70s; he says he was responsible for bringing a number of notable acts–Otis Clay and Little Milton among them–to the north side for the first time. Now Covington’s back, promising to fill the club with what he thinks it always should have been filled with: the blues. Patrons will be seeing standard Chicago fare along with rarer samples from the modern-day chitlin’ circuit.

Covington has spent the last ten-plus years raising a family and running an annual touring blues festival in Scandinavia. For the last couple of months he’s been refurbishing Biddy’s and hopes that the new place will be lighter on the hard-drinking collegiate “romper room” clientele and heavier on the serious music fans. He has his work cut out for him. He’s opening the doors this weekend, but won’t have music till next Wednesday, when Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang start a four-day residency. The following Thursday through Saturday he’ll have Tad Robinson, a white R & B singer who records for Delmark.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Bruce Powell.