Filmmaker-2-Filmmaker: Tip 5 - Why Public Domain Music Isn't As Cheap As You Thought

beethoven_musopen_free_classical_muDuring my last year in film school, I got some bad advice.

I was working on my student film, the one that would have to play in the senior film festival. I had no budget and most of my actors and crew were generously donating their time to help me finish what I expected would be a masterpiece.

As post-production loomed, I began searching for music to score my film that fell within my budget - zero dollars. I was hoping to hire a local Providence-based band, but none of the ones I contacted were willing to do it for free. While I didn’t know much about copyright back then, I knew enough to avoid using popular songs and I didn’t want to get pinched for illegally downloading music (back then, Napster was all the rage).

Witnessing my plight, a friend suggested that I use classical music. His reasoning: the songs were composed hundreds of years ago and were in the public domain, so I wouldn’t have to ask anyone's permission and I definitely wouldn’t have to pay anyone for the privilege. Even better, classical music would give my film an air of sophistication, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Because nothing demonstrates film school hubris quite like comparing your student film to one of the greatest pieces of cinema ever made.

Anyway, I followed my friend's advice and used classical music. The film played in the student filmfest and, while not exactly on par with Kubrick’s masterwork, it was moderately well received. I sent it off to some real film festivals and was rejected by all of them.

My friend was right about one thing: music composed before 1922 is not protected by copyright law. As a result, it lives in the public domain (meaning you can use it for any purpose without paying for it). But it was still bad advice. As I later learned in my producing career, where music is involved, not only is the song itself subject to copyright protection, the RECORDING of that song is also explicitly granted copyright protection. Which means that most music is protected twice under the law.

Why are recordings granted their own copyright protection? Because they're considered separate works of artistic expression. The copyright to a piece of music protects only the WRITTEN music and accompanying lyrics. The copyright to a recording rests with the specific audio RECORDING of the song. More than that, each separate recording - even if it’s of the same song - is granted its own copyright. A live recording of Eric Clapton’s Layla (like the famous MTV Unplugged version) has a separate copyright from the original recording which appeared on the 1970 album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs because it's a completely unique and discrete interpretation of the song. And each of those copyrights stand apart from the copyright granted to the words and music as written by Clapton and his partner Jim Gordon.

Even if the music is in the public domain, copyright protection will still attach to recordings made after 1922. Just yesterday I was listening to a rendition of Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song) by Marcus Mumford and Oscar Isaac off the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack. The origins of the song can be traced to 1904, which means it predates modern copyright law. But a simple iTunes search will reveal dozens of recordings of the song by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, Jeff Buckley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and many more. Each recording of the song gets its own copyright, even though the music and lyrics are no longer protected.

So the moral of the story for all you filmmakers out there: don’t do what I did and think you’re getting off scott free just because you chose some archaic piece of music that was popular during the Napoleonic wars. You’ll still have get permission from the owner of the recording's copyright.

When The Movies Get It Right: A Great Artist Makes A Bad Business Decision In A Great Film, a.k.a. The Curse Of Llewyn Davis

[Potential Spoilers Follow for Inside Llewyn Davis. Be warned.]

If you’re a working artist, Ethan and Joel Coen understand you. Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie by artists, about artists, for artists. It is sad and soulful, angry but thoughtful, bleak yet hope shines in around the edges, and is totally, utterly understanding of the trials and tribulations you go through.

Oscar Isaac is stunning as the eponymous, transient hero. Seriously stunning. His Llewyn is a homeless bounder, sleeping on friends’ couches night by night, carrying nothing with him but a guitar and a cat, trying to pick up gigs and cash wherever he can.  Unmoored by the untimely death of his singing partner, he is still creatively vibrant, but unable to parlay that into a meaningful solo career. As the movie takes pains to show, he’s no Bob Dylan.

Several times throughout the film, Isaac's performance brought me nearly to tears because I’ve been him. Obviously not in the particulars of his life, but the way he shows the dogged pursuit, the endless failure, and the devotion to the craft despite it all are so familiar it’s scary. We have all experienced that crushing weight when your last best hope for a paying gig (and maybe your entire future) tells you “I don't see a lot of money here” and sends you packing. Maintaining the integrity of your art is difficult enough, but when you add commerce to the mix, how do you ever reconcile the two? This movie is about that very paradox (lest I make the movie sound like a relentless downer, rest assured; as with other Coen Bros films, this one is ferociously funny).

There’s a scene midway through the film where Llewyn signs away royalties and the right to be credited on what turns out to be a popular and financially successful song because he needs the money N-O-W. He’s got expenses to pay and places to be and he can’t sit around waiting for a royalty check to come, if it ever does. I’ve never done that but I know people who did, and the way the scene is played - Llewyn doesn't even take a moment to consider the potential windfall at his fingertips - rings so true that I couldn’t let it lie, I had to write about it.

It’s been going on as long as artists have tried to profit from their art. In perhaps the best known example of this, two Jewish kids from Ohio sold their little-known comic book character to a publisher in the 1930s for 130 bucks. That hero turned out to be Superman and the publisher, DC Comics, made millions while Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster died penniless. 75 years after Siegel and Shuster were scammed out of the most iconic creation of the 20th century, their estates are STILL fighting with DC Comics over the rights to the character.

As someone who advises artists in manners of law and business, it’s easy for me to sit here and tell you to take the long view. You never know when something you work on will hit big, so it’s better to plan for the future, right? Of course it is! But who can ever know if that will happen? The odds of that kind of success are frankly against you, and plus, you have rent to pay, so why not take the money now?

That’s what Inside Llewyn Davis gets to its very core. That the life for artists is messy and filled with dire financial obligations (a friend of mine coined the phrase “adulthood is a never-ending series of urgent expenses”). The only person who can control how you get paid is you, and like Llewyn, you’re often making that call while shouldering the weight of the world. If there is a lesson to learn here, it’s that you should try to mentally detach yourself from your obligations in order to make a good decision. That may not be easy or even possible in some situations, but there you go.

You can't know if your work will be successful; the only thing you can control is your decision-making process. So find a way to control it. Llewyn didn’t because he’s a hot head. That kind of passion makes him a great artist, but it’s also why he’s essentially a bum.

[P.S. If you can’t tell, I loved the film. You should see it.]