What is the CLASSICS Act in United States Copyright Law?

What is the CLASSICS Act in United States Copyright Law?

Copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to authors to control the sale, copying and distribution of their creative works.  The word authors, in copyright law, includes other creative artisans like photographers, painters and musicians.  Creative works includes the fruits of a creative person’s labor like paintings, photographs or musical recordings.  When another person uses a copyrighted work without the permission of the author, this is known as copyright infringement.  An author can sue a copyright infringer to stop the infringing activity and to recover monetary damages.

Copyright law in the United States is almost exclusively a matter of federal law.  This creates a uniform legal landscape for most creative works.  Authors know that their works will be protected consistently, no matter what state they are in, because federal law is applied uniformly across the United States.  One exception to this is sound recordings made before 1972.  Sound recordings made before 1972, these works are still governed by state law.  This situation creates a peculiar situation where one state may recognize a creative work as copyrighted and another state may not. Each state being allowed to apply different copyright rules to sound recordings made before 1972 frustrates the purpose of copyright.

To solve this issue a new law has been proposed in the Congress of the United States.  The act is called CLASSICS, which stands for “Compensating Legacy Artists for their Songs, Service, and Important Contributions to Society Act“.  The purpose of the act is to bring sound recordings made before under federal purview and create certainty in how pre-1972 works can be licensed and used.  The act does not make sound recordings made before 1972 an exclusively law issue, but it does synchronize two major issues with federal law. Those issue are:

  1. Digital Transmissions: The CLASSICS Act will treat sound recordings made before 1972 the same as sound recordings made after 1972 on the subject of digital transmissions. This means that unlicensed transmission would be against the law but the recordings would be subject to the same compulsory license regime that governs later recordings. This would streamline licensing such music and ensure equity in royalties.
  2. Safe Harbors: The CLASSICS Act also makes it clear that sound recordings made before 1972 are covered under the same safe harbors as other copyrighted works. This includes the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which governs the notice and takedown regime, and section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

A major question left unanswered by the CLASSICS Act is do sound recordings made before 1972 need to be registered with the United States Copyright Office.  Normally registration of a copyrighted work is necessary before  a copyright infringement lawsuit can be filed in federal court.  Because copyright law did not apply to sound recordings made before 1972, many such recordings were never registered.  The CLASSICS Act is not making pre-1972 sound recordings an exclusively federal matter.  And the act is silent on whether copyright registration is required for the copyright owner to bring a lawsuit.

The act also does not explicitly state that unauthorized use of a pre-1972 sound recording would be copyright infringement, instead the act states that all of the remedies for copyright infringement would be available to the owner of the pre-1972 sound recording.

The CLASSICS Act is not perfect, but it can still be amended. The act is a step in the right direction to harmonize how sound recordings are treated by copyright law.

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