AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Funk pioneer George Clinton is on a mission. He hopes to win back the rights to some of his best known work from the 1970s and '80s. It's a challenge many artists face, partly because of the complicated copyright laws that govern their work, as NPR's Allison Keyes reports.
ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: George Clinton's "Atomic Dog" topped the R&B charts for four weeks in 1982.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATOMIC DOG")
GEORGE CLINTON: (Singing) Bow wow-wow, yippy yo, yippy yay. Bow wow, yippy yo, yippy yay.
KEYES: It came from an album Rolling Stone named one of the 100 greatest of the decade. In the late 1970s, Clinton's bands, Parliament and Funkadelic, wrapped up four number one R&B hits, including the anthem "One Nation Under a Groove."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE NATION UNDER A GROOVE")
CLINTON: (Singing) Ready or not, here we come, getting down (unintelligible)...
KEYES: In 1997, Clinton and his fellow band members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and his music has been sampled more than just about anyone's except the late James Brown. But these days, Clinton has had to turn to the Internet to raise money.
CLINTON: I thought that was a very good idea because lots of people are collecting the old records that we have, and it's a good way to get new records out.
KEYES: He raised more than his $50,000 goal in a recent campaign at IndieGogo.com. He'll use it to restore and preserve original recordings and rebuild his studio. He says his next step is a legal defense fund.
CLINTON: Because all the members of the band have music that they're fighting to get back or copyright renewals that we have to fight different publishing companies and record companies for the royalties.
KEYES: Clinton has filed multiple lawsuits against Bridgeport Music, Incorporated, a company that owns the rights to about 170 songs written by Clinton and other members of his bands. The company says Clinton signed over his rights to the music in 1982 and 1983, but Clinton disputes that, saying his signature was forged.
Richard Busch, an attorney for Bridgeport, told NPR, quote, "Bridgeport has no comment as it relates to pending litigation. As it relates to past litigation, any challenges, to the best of my knowledge, Bridgeport has prevailed each time," unquote.
Clinton's attorney, Jeff Thennisch, says his client did have a relationship with Bridgeport when the record label was the music publisher for a number of Clinton songs in the 1970s and 1980s, but then...
JEFF THENNISCH: There was a falling out between George Clinton and Bridgeport Music, which resulted in a number of different court cases and different actions in various parts of the country.
KEYES: One of them resulted in a 2001 ruling from a U.S. district court in Tallahassee, Florida saying George Clinton does not own any publishing rights to any of the music he wrote between 1976 and 1983. In 2005, a federal judge in Los Angeles returned to Clinton ownership of the master recordings of four Funkadelic albums from the 2001 case, including "One Nation Under a Groove" and "Uncle Jam Wants You."
(SOUNDBITE SONG, "UNCLE JAM WANTS YOU")
KEYES: Bridgeport retains the publishing rights to the songs on those master recordings.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNCLE JAM WANTS YOU")
KEYES: Last year, Clinton filed another suit against Bridgeport and others who have been selling CDs, including music from those master recordings.
JODIE GRIFFIN: It is a system that is designed to favor the more powerful, better informed, more lawyered party, which is almost always the record label.
KEYES: Jodie Griffin is a staff attorney at the nonprofit Internet and copyright organization Public Knowledge. She says if musicians lose their copyrights, it's hard and costly to get them back. Under copyright law, the 1909 version, there are two terms of protection for the copyright holder, an initial 28-year period, then a 28-year renewal period. The 1976 Copyright Act expanded the renewal term from 28 to 47 years and Griffin says that renewal term was extended again in what's known as the Sonny Bono Extension Act in 1998. Now it's 67 years.
GRIFFIN: If we're giving more protection or longer terms and the benefits are not going to go to artists, then it kind of defeats the whole purpose of why we're doing it.
KEYES: But Griffin says copyright assignments made on or after January 1st, 1978 could be terminated starting next year for some authors or their trustees. That means under certain conditions a musician can reclaim a copyright now held by a record company.
GRIFFIN: We see artists have started to file their notices of termination, so it looks like people are going to take advantage of this, but it remains to be seen which record labels or which publishers will fight it.
KEYES: Griffin says people should remember that copyright law also affects the side musicians and songwriters. She says it will become clearer over the next few years whether some of the ongoing music industry practices, such as record labels claiming authorship of their artists' sound recordings, are legally accurate.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KEYES: George Clinton says he intends to use the Internet to get his new music out independently.
CLINTON: There's no record companies no more that's worth dealing with.
KEYES: For now, George Clinton is dealing with lawyers. He's also performing, a lot, at the age of 70. Clinton says he's hoping to see Congress step in and streamline the copyright law so it'll be easier for artists to protect themselves.
Allison Keyes, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLASHLIGHT")