Amoeba’s Vinyl Vault – A Sticky situation of copyright, licensing, and “orphan” works



records, originally uploaded by mohawk.

You know I can stop reading and writing about the music industry. It’s sort of insnae and a decent cautionary tale for other forms of publishing, like print and scholarly. It doesn’t hurt that I love records.

One of my favourite ways to spend lunch is hanging out at Amoeba Records in Berkeley. They’re a good store (though I’m finding my tastes are trending to smaller, more curated shops… but that’s another blog post), local, and trying to survive. I dig ’em. Recently they launched Vinyl Vaults to stream and sell old records that are out of copyright. Sounds like a cool idea, right? Yes. Except it sounds like they’re being sort of sloppy:

On the face of it, it’s a good idea, making music that might have otherwise lingered unplayed in the back room widely available and preserving it in a lossless format. As Amoeba say: “Vinyl is the ultimate expression of an artist’s work, and we’re doing our best to preserve our history!”

However, the store’s approach to the rights and profits of the Vinyl Vaults material is a more knotty issue. For the most part, Amoeba have been able to establish the rights-owners of the music; however, for those they couldn’t find, any profits from sales have been put into an escrow account, which the rights-owners can access if they approach the store.

Through putting in place the escrow system, it appears as though Amoeba have sought to establish themselves as the de-facto owners of the music. By doing so, they ignore the well-established process of re-releasing music that a host of dedicated reissue imprints have been practising for years, and are also taking profit from the sales, payment that gets shared only when and – perhaps more crucially – if the actual owners come forward.

There are labels out there who specialize in licensing and reissuing records, which isn’t really all that lucrative to begin with. Amoeba is becoming a defacto label without doing a lot of the legwork to keep it all legal.

The real question though… who’s going to sue Aomeba? They are skirting copyright law. Part of me thinks, “Good on them! The laws are nebulous and vague and hold us all back.” Another part is thinking, “Damn, that’s ballsy and dumb.”

We’ll see out it plays out.

One thought on “Amoeba’s Vinyl Vault – A Sticky situation of copyright, licensing, and “orphan” works

  1. I have mixed feelings about this, too. For years, I felt like I was the copyright police in every organization I worked in. I’ve read a few articles recently suggesting that libraries have been too cautious and should take a few more risks. If you make an honest attempt to identify and contact the rights holders, these articles argue, that should be enough. Of course, libraries, being nonprofit enterprises, would probably have an easier time defending themselves than a for-profit record store.

    A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to shop at both Amoeba and Aquarius in San Francisco. Coming from a town where all the records stores have closed, it was a real treat. I enjoyed the smaller, more curated Aquarius experience (and bought more there, despite the fact that Amoeba is so much larger) so I look forward to your post on that, too 🙂

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