I recently noticed that some U.S.-based merchants, such as Amazon, are selling imported collections of U.S. jazz recordings from the 1950s and early 1960s at extremely cheap prices: Typically, sets of 8 different albums put on 4 CDs are being offered at $15 for the entire set. For example, there’s “Hank Mobley: Eight Classic Albums,” featuring 8 of Mobley’s Blue Note albums, on sale for $15.72; or, if you prefer, “Cannonball Adderly: Eight Classic Albums,” featuring 8 of Adderley’s albums, for $14.14. This seems to be a new development. The compilations mostly were released in the last few months, from labels with names like “Real Gone Jazz” and “101 Distribution.”
My question is, are these recordings lawful to purchase in the United States? I realize I’m old-fashioned in caring about complying with copyright law. To the hipsters, it seems, “buying music lawfully” is like wearing pleated pants. But my sense is that these recordings are not licensed by the copyright owners in the United States, where the works are still under copyright. Rather, my guess is that they are taking advantage of the fact that copyright in the EU has used a 50 year term, which is about to increase to 70 years. So recordings from the 1950s through 1961 are now in the public domain in Europe, as I understand it, and Europeans can therefore copy CDs, package lots of public-domain recordings together, and then sell them at very low cost to those in the U.S. through sites like Amazon.
So my first question is, am I right that this is what is happening? And second, if I’m right, does U.S. law prohibit purchasing recordings made where the items are in the public domain, albeit purchased from where they are still copyrighted, and then playing them in the U.S. where they are still copyrighted? Copyright nerds, what say you?