Peter Kennedy: A Personal Memoir

Article excerpt

I was an avid listener to Peter Kennedy's pioneering radio series featuring traditional singers in the 1950s but I did not meet him until 1975, shortly after his rich and massive anthology, Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, came out. By this time I was aware of rumours that Peter had asked his informants to sign papers assigning copyright to him and that he required payment from anyone wishing to reproduce the songs. I came face to face with this myself in 1987 when Peter claimed a payment of [pounds sterling]200 for four songs I had included in Everyman's Book of English Country Songs, published eight years earlier, on the grounds that the singers had indeed assigned the copyright to him. In the case of three of these I had drawn on versions recorded or noted from the singers before the dates when they had signed for Peter; the fourth was afterwards, but I had clearance from both collector and record company.

I was fortunate enough to have an eminent legal friend who took an interest in such matters, and I asked what he thought. He replied that he could not formally give me an opinion unless I went through due channels and paid a substantial fee, but that he was prepared to comment informally. What he said is worth quoting because it remains valid. The words of songs themselves carry no copyright capable of assignment so long as they are purely oral. The same goes for tunes. The singer therefore has nothing to assign; a singer is of course free to refuse to sing or to record unless s/he is paid; but the fee is for the performance, not for the copyright. There is copyright in sound recordings, vested in the maker, not in the performer, but it restricts only the reproduction of the sounds recorded. It is improbable that the law recognizes any copyright in the bare transcription of somebody else's words, spoken or sung. Some original element must be contributed to create copyright. However, any copyright that might exist in a transcription--say because it's edited--is only infringed if you copy it. …