View Full Version : bluegrass standards and copyright

Apr-07-2004, 3:41am
Are bluegrass tunes copyright free? Does anyone "own" Cherokee Shuffle for instance? Can anyone ease my paranoia and inform me if uploading here constitutes a copyright infringement? #

Bruce Evans
Apr-07-2004, 6:19am
Music is copyrighted if the creator did so within the last 95 years. Whether it is bluegrass or not is completely irrelevant. Obviously, all songs and tunes which have been written since the beginning of Bill Monroe's style of music fall within the 95 year qualification. Many fiddle tunes and other americana are public domain.

Apr-07-2004, 6:32am
Well I was assuming that the tunes that have become the classic bluegrass/fiddle repertoire are going to be fairly old compositions. However 95 years is a long time, so I guess the answer to my third question is "maybe". I mean, how old is Cherokee Shuffle? I guess I'm opening a can of worms here...

Bruce Evans
Apr-07-2004, 12:16pm
First of all, get a copy of The Fiddler's Fake Book. It's a great source of fiddle tunes.

Now, to your question. There is no copyright date listed on Cherokee Shuffle in my copy of FFB. There is another tune named Lost Indian I which sounds very similiar. It has no copyright date either.

And yes, you have potentially opened a can of worms, but it is not the first time this has happened.

Michael H Geimer
Apr-07-2004, 1:25pm
I did some Goggle-searching yesterday about the history of Cherokee Shuffle. MikeB and I were discussion the sordid history of how we treated that nation, and I was curious if the title really did relate to The Trail of Tears. (Personally, I don't think it does)

Here's what I found out:

Tony Jackson is credited with the first recorded version back in the fifties. His is supposedly a re-working of an older fiddle tune titled Lonesome Indian, with the addition of the B section. But, Lonesome Indian is apparently NOT the same tune - traditionally - as Lost indian, though they are similair.

[shrug] This is just what I gleened yesterday ... I don't have enough personal knowledge to substantiate any of it ...so, please contradict and/or correct me at will.

To the original question ... I think most fiddle tunes are in the public domain. But I often wonder about - specifically - Carter Family tunes.

It's common knowledge that A.P. Carter was both an early archivist of mountian songs, and also an opportunist who claimed copyrights to all the songs he collected, and later recorded with Sara and Maybelle. (Hey, times were tough back then ... ya' had to market whatever ya' could, right? )

So, am I violating some standing copyright held by his living decendants? LOL! Even if I am, I'm still gonna play these tunes.

So ... it gets hazy. But, I don't think we're skirting any sort of legal trouble with The Mandolin Project, as there is no real marketing going on inside this communal study project. Thus, no demonstratble loss or damage, etc. We're just too small time.

My 2˘

- Benig

Apr-07-2004, 2:57pm
Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding of copyright law, is that it is to protect against plaigarism for profit is the best way I can put it.

So it is not in the learning and playing for one's own pleasure that is the problem, but when that extends to playing copyrighted material for financial gain without ensuring that the artists recieve some of that money. That also covers recording and selling.

Where and how would a group that is closed, with no money involved, infringe on copyrighted material?

I know so little about copyright law and here I am yammering on....but I would like to know more about the lines that can be crossed.

Cam, good question. Even if I don't like all the answers


Apr-07-2004, 3:07pm
What about recordings then? You heard the same songs over and over by a ton of different bands, is it just that no one cares so they leave it be, they pick songs that aren't copyrighted, or they pay some sort of royalties?


Apr-09-2004, 2:56pm
You should check songs to see if they are traditional or copyrighted, but many people don't to avoid finding out what they don't want to know. Most common fiddle tunes are probably traditional, and you can feel safe recording them without problems. Our band plays "Lonesome Fiddle Blues" a lot, which was written by Vassar Clements, who should get some money if we record it - unfortunately for him, he may not get enough money for lunch out of our work. "Orange Blossom Special" is not traditional, either - and Chubby Wise gave up his chance for royalties, thinking it was a throwaway tune.
Most songs with words were probably written by someone, and even a few real traditional songs were copyrighted by 50s and 60s folksingers. I've also seen small record labels try to get out of royalties; I have a Stoneman Family album with the song "Tecumsah Valley" listed as traditional, when even I know it was written by Townes Van Zandt.
People who created the work deserve the royalties, but getting the proper clearance isn't easy. It has certainly slowed our group's recording efforts, although it's not the only problem. Some people don''t care, some miss things by accident, and some may not get noticed - but then again, you might get caught. If I saw something I wrote recorded by someone else, I would certainly like to get credit, even if there wasn't much money involved.
There is no problem just playing the songs, and if you perform, the clubs pay fees to BMI or ASCAP to cover this. If you record, then it's up to you or your record company (I keep forgetting that there are no more records, but you know what I mean).

Michael H Geimer
Apr-09-2004, 3:15pm
" (I keep forgetting that there are no more records, but you know what I mean). "

Of course, we all do know what you mean. But, I think record is in fact a suitable term for any audio recording regardless of its final media. Furthermore any collection of recordings might properly be called an album ... all in distinction to the various types of media, called LP's, 45's, cassette, 8-track, CD, DVD, yadda yadda yadda.

I'll always call a collection of songs an album ... after all, what else would it be?

Bummer about Chubby and OBS, though ... that had to sting.

- Benig

Apr-09-2004, 3:43pm
On the Grammy's there is an award for Record of the year & one for Album of the year.....

I am still trying to figure that one out!

This is from www.grammys.com (http://www.grammys.com):

Record Of The Year
(Award to the Artist and to the Producer(s), Recording Engineer(s) and/or Mixer(s), if other than the artist.)

Album Of The Year
(Award to the Artist(s) and to the Album Producer(s), Recording Engineer(s)/Mixer(s) & Mastering Engineer(s), if other than the artist.)

Oh, that really clears it up!


Apr-11-2004, 1:27pm
Only kidding about the record part. The important thing is that if you record a song on a CD you're selling, you have to get clearance and pay a fee to record it. That is as it should be, but tracking down the people to pay for each song is a bit of work. There are a few general clearing houses, but they seem to want you to pay in advance for selling 1,000 or more recordings. That may be a lot for our group - we would like to make up a couple hundred CDs to sell where we play. We have the lawyer in our band working on it, but haven't come up with satisfactory solution yet. We have thought about a recording of just fiddle tunes, where we can find enough material in the public domain. Is anyone else wrestling this matter, or is there a simple solution I don't know about?

Apr-13-2004, 9:26am
Found this in my email yesterday and thought I would pass it along.


These days, almost all things are copyrighted the moment they are written, and no copyright notice is required.
Copyright is still violated whether you charged money or not, only damages are affected by that.
Postings to the net are not granted to the public domain, and don't grant you any permission to do further copying except perhaps the sort of copying the poster might have expected in the ordinary flow of the net.
Fair use is a complex doctrine meant to allow certain valuable social purposes. Ask yourself why you are republishing what you are posting and why you couldn't have just rewritten it in your own words.
Copyright is not lost because you don't defend it; that's a concept from trademark law. The ownership of names is also from trademark law, so don't say somebody has a name copyrighted.
Fan fiction and other work derived from copyrighted works is a copyright violation.
Copyright law is mostly civil law where the special rights of criminal defendants you hear so much about don't apply. Watch out, however, as new laws are moving copyright violation into the criminal realm.
Don't rationalize that you are helping the copyright holder; often it's not that hard to ask permission.
Posting E-mail is technically a violation, but revealing facts from E-mail you got isn't, and for almost all typical E-mail, nobody could wring any damages from you for posting it. The law doesn't do much to protect works with no commercial value.

Michael H Geimer
Apr-14-2004, 1:28pm

I noticed a README file has been posted by Craig at the Yahoo! group site. It basically prohibits any posting of copywritten mat'l to the group.

Perhaps it's just a CYA document ... or perhaps Craig plans to 'crack down' on the subject matter we're posting.

e.g. I'm pretty darned sure there's a "©Buckingham/Nicks" that rightly belongs on my Mp3 of Landslide that's up there, and I wonder if that song ought not to be up there at all without said permission?

- Benignus

Jim Hilburn
Apr-23-2004, 4:13pm
My little group is in the process of recording a cd, and since we have no originals, now are facing the harsh reality of licensing the songs. 8.5 cents a song per copies printed. Adds right up on 10-12 songs if you plan to make 500-1000 copies.
The place you can go to get licenses is The Harry Fox agency. They have a website where you can put in the name of a song and find out who owns it and license online.

Apr-26-2004, 10:46am
We are in the same position, and are trying to do a mix of public domain tunes and copyrighted ones to keep the costs down. I don't mind paying the royalties, but would like to do it after the CDs sell, rather than pay on the ones that may sit in the closet.

I've written a couple books, and royalties don't come for a few months after the books are sold, and they are subtracted from books returned to the publisher. I once had a roylaty statement of -$2.25 (I didn't have to pay it back). I suppose people wouldn't pay if it wasn't up front, but I would rather pay based upon what I sell. Royalties aren't paid on the free promo copies given out, either.

Tom C
Apr-26-2004, 11:07am
It's very hard to find bluegrass song books that include copyrighted tunes. As said above it's too much work. I think I have found 2 books from publishers taking a chance.

Apr-26-2004, 1:49pm
To Jim Hilburn -- Take note of the Harry Fox licensing terms, namely that it's *not* $.08 per song ... it's $40 for up to 2500 copies. #So if you only press 500 copies, then yes, you're paying $.08 per copy. #But after that initial 500, you can press 2000 more with no additional fee. #To make it simple, a 12-song CD of all copyrighted material will set you back $480 whether you press 500 or 2500.

Don Smith

Jim Hilburn
Apr-26-2004, 5:44pm
Don, I'd like to know more. I went through the whole licensing form on one of the songs and said we were going to do 1000 copies, and it they said it was $95 for that song. When I did one with 500 it said $52. I'm missing something.

Apr-27-2004, 11:00am

I just tried it and got the same result you did. #I was -- apparently -- misled and will tell my "source" so. #Sorry for the confusion.

Don Smith

Apr-27-2004, 11:22am
It seems to me that there was a thread not too long ago about a small bar owner that had live bands play, for free, and that he got fined and told to stop because someone heard one of the folks(that weren't getting paid) play a cover. While I agree that authoring a song would entitle the originator some compensation, where do you draw the line? I hope the mandolin project doesn't get affected by this.

I mean, here's a guy that starts something really good for budding mandolinsts and now he has to go and hire a lawyer?!(worst case scenario)

Apr-27-2004, 3:50pm
Clubs and businesses do have to pay fees to ASCAP or BMI for music played in their establishments. Some places get by for awhile, others don't; a few years ago, the GAP paid several thousands of dollars for playing the radio in their stores. I and several neighboring small store retailers in my city have been harassed by ASCAP for playing music in our shops; in my case, after much discussion we came to the conclusion that I was playing the music in my office area for my own enjoyment (legal) and not for customers (although I believe some might listen). ASCAP has been quite aggressive in our area - I have seen the reps in the audience when our band plays, and I don't think they really came to hear the music. In one local incident, it rumored they requested a song from a band doing original material, then went after the bar owner when the band played the request.

People should be paid for their work, but I asked how they can possibly get the money from the fees to the proper artists. The answer I got was that money was apportioned according to appearances on radio playlists, even for clubs and concert venues. Thus, while I might play Jethro Burns in my shop, Michael Jackson was probably getting the money.

If someone made money off songs I wrote, I wouldn't mind a small piece of it. I'm not sure the right people get the money under this system, but those on the other side could be quite happy with the current method. Like it or not, it does happen. We sometimes find clubs that only want bands with original material, and that is not usually an artistic choice, but a way to avoid the license fees.

Michael H Geimer
Apr-27-2004, 4:27pm
It always upsets me how ASCAP and BMI treat violations of performance rights with the same fervor as they do violations of mechanical right.

Mechanical royalties come from the trafficing of media, like CDs, cassette, or vinyl. Performance royalites are different in that they don't deal with any sort of physical property, yet the case is presented with moral outrage suggestive of physical theft. IMO, playing a cover is not theft. Selling couterfeit CDs at the Flea Market is theft!

To be clear, I'm griping about the music venue crack-downs by ASCAP and BMI agents working on comminsion based salaries. Publishing a song, and selling the rights to an artist who intends to produce physical media is clearly a legit pursuit.

I just think, if the case isn't about physical property loss ... Well, I would hope they'd back off and just let the music play. I mean, I've probably turned a dozen or more people onto Gillian Welch just by playing her tunes out and about. I often get asked, "Who wrote that song?", and the answer is *always* Gillian Welch.

Should I stop? LOL! Gimme a break!

Apr-28-2004, 8:28am
As a performer, I don't believe you have to stop performing the songs, but the venue has to worry about what the performers play. I don't want any place we play to have trouble, and I am uncomfortable seeing the reps in the audience. It is also difficult for performing musicians in our area to find places to play - they compete against djs, karaoke, and recorded music, plus it's a tough business, and many clubs don't last more than a year or two, if that long.

It would be good if the business people understood that spreading the music leads to more CD sales in a time when such sales are dropping - bluegrass/acoustic music people are more likely to by whole CDs rather than download individual songs. Just a thought for the long term.

Michael H Geimer
Apr-28-2004, 11:45am
" Just a thought for the long term. "

Of course, you're absolutely correct that it's the venue who foots the bill to ASCAP or BMI. And I totally agree that there is a need to revisit the greater business models surrounding royalty ditribution and artist compensation in general.

Sadly, I think there is legal precedent that allows these companies to use MTV, VH1, and Clear Channel playslist - large volume market samples, that is - as the basis for 'slicing up the pie' and determining artist percentages*. I can't imaginge how one would go about challenging the status quo, as the industry would surely eat any small artist alive who attempted a legal suit.

I'm trying to live my musical life 'off grid' from here on out, as I'm just too disgusted by the industry, and its misguided principles to participate in its business.

- Benig

*As a small artist with published songs, I have never received one single performce royalty, though I know for a fact that I've been aired on radio, and TV ... mind you, in tiny little doses. I've been overshadowed by the domination of the popluar playlists. As was suggested earlier ... Michael Jackson probably got a few cents richer from my efforts.

FWIW: I do get a few bucks here and there in mechanical royalites, and that's actually pretty cool. But, the whole performace royalty distribution system is basically a scam, IMO.

Apr-28-2004, 1:16pm
Since you have written songs that get airplay, your comments reinforce the point I was trying to make - even if clubs and businesses pay the fees, we know that the real artists aren't always getting the benefits. There is room for a lot of change in the music industry, but it probably won't come from the bottom. I just want to keep playing music - which I seem to be doing now more than ever before - and having a good time at it. Even when bluegrass and acoustic music is no longer the latest fad, most of us will still be playing it like we did before you heard it in the background at the supermarket.

Michael H Geimer
Apr-28-2004, 1:34pm
" I just want to keep playing music - which I seem to be doing now more than ever before - and having a good time at it. "

Me, too ... and isn't that the *real* pay-off?

Apr-28-2004, 11:33pm
Yes, indeed.