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Poor Man's Blues: Copyright and Ownership Issues in the Blues

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America has long portrayed itself as the land of opportunity and innovation, of ingenuity and creativity. It is a land that secures for its talented minds the right to benefit from their creativity, in the form of copyright law, which gives the makers of great ideas the ownership over their creations so that they may enjoy the fruits of their labors. The very term, copyright, implies obtaining the right to make copies at a price paid to the creator of the original.

In 1831, the copyright laws were amended so as to include sheet music. Another significant revision occurred in 1909 when other types of works (recordings on vinyls and other mediums) came under protection and established royalties based on copies sold. Furthermore the period of protection has also changed, and copyrights currently extend for seventy years after the original composer's death (Davidson, 599-600).

Blues music was at its peak c.1930's-1950's, and in those times copyright was granted to the author, his/her heirs or the proprietor of rights, which was usually some sort of publishing company (often set up when the author signed over his rights to the song for a lump sum payment up front) (Kenney, 118-9).

The origins of the blues is shrouded in as much mystery and myth as are many of its notorious artists, but the first mention of the word blues came from Hart James "Dallas Blues", circa 1912 (Davis). In 1920, Mamie Smith sold 75,000 copies of her song 'Crazy Blues' in just one single month (Oliver, 96), which proved that there was a sizable and lucrative market amongst African Americans. Over the course of the years records kept selling and inviting more musicians to step forth. At times this fast growing industry resorted to any means necessary.

Blues music traces itself to, and can even be said to be a form of, folk music. Like much of folk music it was also at one point preserved as an oral tradition, unsurprising given the background of slavery. Thus, songs often had more than one version as they were passed along. Often, as in the case of Skip James, various blues and folk tunes would be adapted; some changed stylistically and others added to lyrically or changed in some similar way and these songs were, as was common practice, considered by him to be his own works (Calt, 87/160). It was no matter of consequence then, when Robert Johnson borrowed from Skip James, re-recording several stanzas of James' "22-20" and adding a few personal touches and calling it "32-20" (Calt, 198). This was a widespread trend, with everyone borrowing back and forth and appropriating whatever they could. This was largely because there was a strong economic incentive for young talented African American musicians, able to potentially earn "upwards of fifty dollars a week" by 1910 (Harrison, 21).

The industry standard, for a business where few of the artists were knowledgeable enough to understand ownership rights, became to file for copyright for even compositions that differed just slightly from some other work or were an amalgamation of several works (Meade, 208). Most artists, on their parts, weren't too concerned about the issue. Few, if any, ever actually registered for any copyrights. The oral roots of folk music and traditional repertoires meant that the early blues musicians were largely unaware of the royalties system. The responsibility, therefore of filing and registering for copyrights on most of these songs would fall on the record companies and/or the publishing companies (Meade 207-209). Often these works were released with the phrase 'proprietor of copyright for a work made for hire', meaning that the record company was the rightful owner of copyright and royalties, the song having been commissioned (Kenney, 128).

In 1924, the Paramount company hired Mayo Williams as the manager and overseer of all its black music, and in 1928 he founded The State Street Music Company independently. In the next 4 years, State Street Music registered nearly 500 songs, many in Williams' name (Meade, 210-211). Similarly, Ralph Peer, talent scout for Victor Records registered nearly 3,500 songs - often as originals - between 1927 and 1935. The majority of blues and country music was, however left unprotected. Most record companies never registered copyrights on any of their material, at least in part due to the fact that there was more money to be made this way by having no outgoing royalties.

Beginning in the late 1930's, the industry took a turn for the better and the standard shifted to registering compositions for copyright. The talent scouts went from being mere cogs in the corporate wheel to being able to operate on their own and "collect fees from enterprising musicians and songwriters wishing to prosper through a recording contract or a published piece of sheet music" (Meade, 214). This did not, however, keep people from keeping royalties away from the musicians who had rightfully earned them. Blues musicians were not, however, entirely unpaid. There was, after all, an economic incentive to becoming a great blues man. Generally, the performers/composers took a flat rate fee, usually per recording session.

In 1922, Edith Wilson was paid $125 for recording for Perry Bradford, a fee that was considered a generous payment at the time for what was less than a day's work. It was however, inconsequential compared to the $53,000 Bradford was paid for as the composer of another of his commissioned works (Harrison, 181).

Similarly, in 1923, Bessie Smith was given $200 per usable side by Frank Walker, who carefully struck out the royalties clause from the contract because Bessie had absolutely no idea what royalties were and earnestly believed that she was the one who had gotten the deal. Men like Bradford and Walker, who owned copyrights over these works, they had largely stolen their compositions or purchased them for a nominal fee from talented but simple musicians (Albertson, 38). The most incredible thing is the weight many of these cheated performers carried. Bessie Smith only ever received roughly $30,000 for her work at Columbia, despite the fact that her "estimated total sales of 6.5 million discs kept the perennially floundering Columbia label afloat during the twenties" (Kenney, 119). This kind of low cost cash cow was a major reason why the blues was marketed so extensively during the 20's and 30's. Performers often took home a tiny fee or sometimes even a bottle of whiskey for their work. Ralph Peer thought that the rural entertainers "would prove so eager to record that the majority would, if that were the only alternative...do it for free" (Kenney, 141).

Due to the fact that African Americans, particularly those in the South, have been historically poor and in

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