The Edges of the Public Domain

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We were invited by Marysia Lewandowska and Laurel Ptak to contribute to Undoing Property?

Download the publication here

Open Music Archive offers a collection of eighteen new recordings for publication and distribution in Undoing Property? The project identifies a gap in the present legal reality in order to obtain public access to sonic materials before they are closed down by impending changes to legislation. It extracts elements that are common, and forms part of an ongoing project to collect and freely distribute copyright-expired music recordings.

Source material for the project is gleaned from the edges of the public domain with a specific focus on audio material from early commercial releases presenting a divide in ownership between lyrics and musical composition—two discreet and essential elements of modern popular music and the subject of countless legal disputes throughout the history of the recording industry. This split exists in UK copyright law, and offers an opportunity for elements of material to be released once divorced.

New sonic sequences have been generated from archival recordings, which have been edited, redacted, cut-up, and processed to suppress copyright-secured elements, thus enabling the release of public domain layers from the proprietary control of commercial publishers.

Retrieved from the recesses of the British Library and beyond, recordings from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s have been dug out from record company back catalogues. Recordings have been altered and encoded using pervasive digital processing techniques ported from pop, R & B, and hip-hop. Melodic phrases are scrambled or reduced to a monotone and lyrics are flipped and reversed, rendered incomprehensible, to bypass legal frameworks and enable unrestricted playback.

Phonetic reversal and backmasking—techniques conventionally used to censor words or phrases in rap recordings for radio broadcast, or historically used to encode subliminal messages on vinyl releases—are here used to redact recordings with lyrics still under copyright control. Elsewhere, reedits strip the vocal content out of a recording—intros, outros, and instrumental sections are re-spliced to open out and free melodic layers. Vocal production technologies of vocoder and autotune are folded back into their original military functions of speech coding and encryption in order to suppress controlled melodic elements and release copyright-expired lyrics.

This processing allows recordings of songs—such as the 1924 song “Golden Days,” not scheduled to return to the public domain until 2022 (perhaps to a future world suffering overpopulation and depleted resources as depicted in the 1973 film Soylent Green), or the 1937 song “Sentimental and Melancholy,” whose copyright is due to expire in 2047 (the same year rescue vessel Lewis and Clark answers a distress signal from starship Event Horizon) — to be released in part, right now in 2013.

We must remember that the legal frameworks that define the limits of the public domain are not fixed. The future of the public domain is precarious—the field of culture is increasingly colonized for private interests as proprietors of intellectual property continually lobby for the extension of their control. We are well aware that intellectual property has been declared the oil of the twenty-first century.

On September 12, 2011, following aggressive lobbying by private interests, the Council of the European Union adopted an extension of the term of copyright in sound recordings. The British government is using this opportunity to bring other elements of copyright law under tighter control. These upcoming legal enclosures are due to take effect across Europe in late 2013: some public material will be returned to proprietary ownership, in other cases, material on the threshold of escape will be forced under control for a further twenty years.

In response to this moment we offer a “record catalogue”: a collection of newly processed recordings that are freely published and distributed online. This timely and urgent action ensures that copyright-expired recorded lyrics and melodies are distributed publicly while still free.

Source manuscripts and recordings for this collection are currently scheduled for full release into the UK public domain between 2018 and 2069. Here, we present a series of prerelease leaks for free distribution. Audio has been hacked for the present legal reality. Download and listen to the recordings at:

The material is distributed under a copyleft license for future reuse.

Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0