Hyperion copyright case

by Chris Bertram on October 31, 2005

Today’s Guardian “editorial”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/leaders/story/0,3604,1604944,00.html concerns the recent legal case involving “Hyperion Records”:http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/ . Hyperion are best know for their wonderful series of Schubert song recordings — Ian Bostridge’s Die schöne Müllerin being a case in point. Their survival is now threatened because the editor of the works of a rather obscure French composer was successful in “an action claiming musical copyright in the work”:http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/news.asp#1 . I offer no opinion on the legal merits of the case, though it is claimed that this effectively lowers the threshold on what counts as an original work. Hyperion will probably face small damages, but they must now meet their own and the plaintiff’s enormous legal costs. They are “appealing for donations”:http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/shop/donate.asp .



James Wimberley 10.31.05 at 8:17 am

The judgement is a disaster: bad policy and the seedbed of huge confusion over editions of plays as well as music. The only beneficiaries will continue to be, as in this case, the lawyers.


Dan Nexon 10.31.05 at 9:50 am

About one quarter of our classical/early modern/medieval music collection is on Hyperion; from simply the perspective of access to quality (and often obscure) music, this is a disaster.

There’s an interesting write up here, which makes clear, I think, why this is a bad decision. Still, as I read more about the facts I understand why this case was more complicated than one might first assume.


rk 10.31.05 at 10:01 am

The Hyperion/Sawkins case was an interesting one, which raised quite a few perennial aesthetic/philosophical issues. As a start, the appeal court judge’s summary is worth a look:

Against Lionel Sawkins’s arguments is the fact that, after the first court case, the musicians at the centre of this (Ex Cathedra’s director and a colleague) went on to make their own edition of some pieces by Lalande, going back to the primary sources and, I suppose, not looking at Sawkins’s scores. This work didn’t take them terribly long and, with computer help, it wasn’t all that arduous. Ex Cathedra performed these pieces in a concert. The results were reported to be fine.

A similar case has been that of the poet John Clare, with a contemporary academic claiming copyright on his edition of the works. Recently the writer Iain Sinclair was reported as going back to the manuscripts to make his own edition, for his book on Clare (just out).

The moral: anyone can be their own editor of manuscripts that are publicly accessible and which are of a sufficent age. Don’t let self-aggrandizing editors claim too much.

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