I was at the Library of Congress this week to hear the An-sky Yiddish Heritage Ensemble perform at the Library of Congress and decided, while I was in the building, to visit the Copyright Office and try to find out if the songs I'm researching are under copyright.
As most people understand it these days, any song copyrighted 1923 or earlier is now in the public domain, and any song copyrighted after that time (thanks to Disney lobbying efforts and the subsequent "Mickey Mouse Protection Act") will never be in the public domain.
However, that's not necessarily true. A song copyrighted in the period I'm interested in (up through the 1930s) had to be renewed 28 years later in order to be protected forever. It was my suspicion that many Yiddish song copyrights might not have been renewed and so the songs might now be in the public domain.
There are some online pdf copyright records at archive.org starting in 1978, but for the vast majority of materials you have to go to the Copyright Office yourself (or pay $150 plus per hour) to find out. The materials are not digitized (ie searchable online) and the staff opines they will never be. In addition, the archive.org scanned books are bare listings. The full info exists only in huge banks of card catalogs in the Madison building (room 404) at the Library of Congress.
This is what you have to do to find out if an early song you are interested in is still protected:
- Go to the back room where the 1898-1937 (I think) records are held and look up your songs by title or composer.
If you don't find it in the brown color coded collection, go to the "claimants" section - where songs which were not published were "claimed" by their composers or other interested parties. I found Nellie Casman's songs there. Also, all the songs by prolific composer David Meyerovitz (also known as David Meyerowitz and David Mairovits in the catalog) are in the claimant section, and that's how I found "Ikh for aheym" - unfindable otherwise because it's filed under "Tikh fur a heim."
- Because the Yiddish in the card catalog is weird and chaotic and full of mistakes you may have best luck checking first in Yiddish American Popular Songs, 1895 to 1950: A Catalog Based on the Lawrence Marwick Roster of Copyright Entries by Irene Heskes. You can buy a used copy pretty cheap online. This book is great because in the index the Yiddish is standardized.
When I couldn't find something I was sure I'd seen published (it's highly unlikely that any song that exists as sheet music was not first copyrighted), I went back to Heskes to see, again, what spelling I might have to search for.
- If your song was indeed copyrighted in those early days, you next need to see if the copyright was renewed. Add 28 years to the year of initial copyright and search again in the later banks of index cards.
Of the hundred-plus songs I checked for, less than ten have current copyrights.
While looking, I found some wonderful song titles, my favorite being Nellie Casman's "Mr. Malach Hamooves, ich bin busy," which is Yinglish for "Mr. Angel of Death, I'm busy."
If anybody happens on this post and has corrections or additions, please let me know in the comments. Thanks.