Bitter Suite

A Denver conductor and music professor leads an ensemble fight to protect the classics.

Lawrence Golan knows firsthand that classical music can be a tough sell. As a professor of conducting and director of the Orchestral Studies program at the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music, Golan spends his time teaching the classics to music students and conducting the school's orchestra. Along the way, he's struggled to uphold a musical tradition that has seen its commercial appeal shrink and audience age over the last couple of decades.

"The major labels are dropping classical music," Golan says. "You look out into the audiences and see a lot of gray hair."

Yet he and others who remain committed to the classical style see it as something worth fighting for -- even if that battle pits them against forces that don't seem to have much to do with the world of music. Last fall, Golan became the lead plaintiff in a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver challenging two pieces of legislation that make it harder and more expensive for instructors, performers, publishers and cultural organizations to access works of art, including classical-music compositions. In the complaint, Golan points his baton at the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA) and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act -- laws that he, his fellow plaintiffs and his attorney say ignore the Constitution's requirement that copyright statutes be of a limited length and that they "promote the Progress of Science and useful arts." Instead, they claim, the acts have created a loophole that yanks the sheet music of many great pieces right out of the hands of performers.

"In a city the size of Denver," Golan says, "no children will hear 'Peter and the Wolf' live again. It won't happen for another twenty years. It's horrible."

"The [laws] don't promote the 'Progress of Science,'" adds Edward Lee of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society in California, which is handling Golan's case pro bono. "How can you promote learning and knowledge when you're removing work from the public domain and making it more difficult to have access to it?" The list of plaintiffs in the case includes distributors of books and films who Lee says are also being hurt by the laws; Festival Films (a distributor of recordings of vintage films and TV shows) and ESS.A.Y Recordings, a distributor of classical music, are among those named in the suit.

The URAA and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act are as complicated as they are controversial. The URAA, an international treaty signed by the United States in 1994 and made effective in 1996, grants copyright protection to foreign works that were previously in the public domain, ratcheting up the price an organization or individual must pay in order to perform or use them. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act -- sponsored by Cher's former singing partner and passed by Congress in 1998 -- prolonged the life of current copyrights from fifty to seventy years past the death of a work's author. At the time of their respective passages, both laws were viewed as protective shields for artists both living and dead, designed to ensure that they and their families received compensation for their work.

But according to Golan, both have dire implications for teachers, aspiring artists, arts groups and consumers. For one thing, they make the use of certain scores too expensive for all but the nation's wealthiest symphonies. Many works -- such as Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" and pieces by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and other Russian and foreign composers -- did not previously fall under U.S. copyright laws regarding authorship. (The U.S. government refused to recognize the copyrights of many Russian artists in response to the former Soviet Union's denial of international copyrights.) Other foreign composers didn't receive protection because of technicalities on their part, some as minor as not placing a copyright notice on their works. (Until the late '70s, the United States was the only national power that required such symbols for copyright protection.) For this reason, many works by international artists, writers and composers were in the American public domain prior to the creation of the URAA, their rights available for rent or purchase by symphonies for relatively small amounts of money.

Today, those same works have attained newfound copyright status, a fact that has made them largely inaccessible to arts organizations with meager budgets, including the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

Rodolfo Betancourt, an artistic and education assistant with the CSO, says the orchestra has felt the pinch caused by these higher fees. For its educational performances, the CSO typically spent about $100 for the sheet music for public-domain pieces in the past; that fee covered the music and the publisher fees. Contemporary works by modern composers -- a John Williams score, for example -- are generally reserved for larger-budget shows; rentals for these can go as high as $10,000 or more. Thanks to the new laws, Betancourt says, his days of $100 rentals of many foreign compositions are now over. CSO purchased sheets for "Peter and the Wolf" years ago, he notes, when it was a public-domain piece. Now the CSO would be required to pay fees ranging "from a couple hundred dollars to $6,000" for the piece. For an organization whose financial woes have worsened in recent years, those fees are simply not affordable. Betancourt's department has stopped scheduling works that are protected under the Uruguay and Bono acts.

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