Could Independent Music Giant Amoeba Be Facing a Copyright Lawsuit Nightmare?

Interior of SF Amoeba
Temple Law Professor David Post teaches copyright law, and recognizes the issues at hand. "This has become a big enough problem in copyright law that this now has its own name. They're called Orphan Works," he says. "Sound recordings before 1972 were protected under state law. People have died, left things in their will, their heirs have died. There's no central repository of copyright ownership information that's comprehensive." But just because you can't find a copyright holder for an orphaned, self-released folk record that never sold a single copy, doesn't lessen the possible liability.

None of this seems to sit well with Sevier and the Numero Group. "People are very cagy in this day and age because there's so many scams. It's an uphill battle to license this stuff. That's the shortcut they're taking. Regardless of legalities and moral issues, my problem is they're making it harder for us. They're adding to the noise of bootlegging and distrust that's already out there. They're making it hard to do something that's quality and legitimate," he says.

Henderson feels differently about their approach. "The core of who we are is ultimate appreciators of music, artists and the medium. This isn't something that's being tossed out there without thought, respect or regard for people's works. That is the goal, a push to get this stuff recognized," he says.

See also: Tonight David Byrne and Author Chris Ruen Explain Exactly, Specifically, and Definitively Why Illegally Downloading Music Makes You A Huge Asshole

So is this a possible foolhardy approach by one of the most respected music retailers in the country to move into the digital age or is it possible this is a well thought out plan? Amoeba, after all, has spent an astounding six years and estimated $11 million investing in their Vinyl Vaults before it went online in 2012.

Post thinks this might be a calculated move on their part. "You're offering this escrow payment that's, say, $14.11 but I think I'm entitled to $30,000 under the statute and I'm going to go get it. It's hard for me to imagine that that won't happen to somebody. They should have legal preparedness and I'm sure they know this is coming," he says.

The most interesting part is, if challenged in court, Amoeba has a decent shot walking away unscathed. Copyright laws give judges in cases as such an enormous amount of discretion. If Amoeba instantly removes the unlicensed MP3s if requested by the copyright holder as they claim they will, all the profits that have gone to escrow have been turned over. A judge could possibly see this as a public service and significantly award less in damages or even none at all.

While Amoeba's Vinyl Vaults feels lacking in nefarious intent, their devil may care approach to the sale of unlicensed music is less than admirable to many. They should know better, they themselves sell countless fantastic reissues and compilations that were legally put together by large and small labels alike. The Vinyl Vaults could serve as a musical ark or sorts. Attempting to archive seldom heard records for music lovers for generations to come could be a truly noble endeavor by a much heralded music store. Let's just aim to do all of it legally.

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