The following is a guest post by Hope O’Keeffe, Office of General Counsel.
This week marks the inauguration of the Copyright Office’s first blog, on the forthcoming digitization of copyright records.
The digitization of copyright records for music will be an enormous boon to people trying to clear music rights. But it also has huge implications for music scholarship and for everyday folks. Just ask Uncle Bennie.
My great uncle Bernard McLaughlin was a classically-trained pianist and composer based in Boston. With his brothers, Bill and my grandfather Jack, the McLaughlin Brothers played hotels and dance halls in Boston and toured throughout New England, New York City, and the Hudson River Valley. For the rest of his long life, he made his living through music and writing songs.
One day during a tour of the Copyright Office, on a lark I looked up Uncle Bennie in the card catalog. My chance visit led to the discovery of lost songs that mostly hadn’t been seen since Uncle Bennie sent them in for copyright deposit. I was astounded to find that he had registered 42 songs through 1936, most still unpublished. It’s an amazing peek into popular history: songs like “How I Love to Ride in a Rumble Seat” (1928), “What Is This Power I have Over Women” (1928), “Looking Through the Radio” (1929) [about the invention of television], “Everyone’s Economizing Now” (1931), “If Women Start Dressing Like Men” (1934), and “So Says Mussolini”(1935).
Uncle Bennie is our family’s musical success story; a couple of his songs were recorded and are still played, and he’s even represented on YouTube playing the piano. But we had no clue about the hard work and persistence behind that success. Here’s a struggling musician, during the Depression, who invests in the American dream by regularly scraping together the cash for copyright registration. The card catalog is filled with such stories. It’s an incredible resource.
Now, before the digitization of the Copyright Office’s records, obtaining lost music like Uncle Bennie’s was a hard slog. I had to go to the Copyright Office, hand-copy the cataloging information by pencil (pens are banned around the card catalog), carry it down to the Performing Arts Reading Room, wait for the songs to arrive from off-site storage, and then bring them home to plunk at on my piano to bring this music back to life for the first time in over 70 years. Now, sometime within a decade or so, at least the first step will be just a few keystrokes away.
See Bernard McLaughlin’s composition “Looking thru’ the radio” here (pdf).