WKRP in copyright limbo

How do the struggles to release a DVD of a 1970s era sit-com inform our difficulties with copyright in higher education? At the very least, the problems encountered in preparing a DVD of “WKRP in Cincinnati” illustrate the complex layers of rights with which academics who study or create multimedia must deal.

Those of us old enough to remember WKRP will recall that, in a sit-com set in a radio station, pop music was a central part of the story. Often the humor of a particular situation was created or enhanced by the music being aired on WKRP. The sound track of the show was a collection of contemporary pop, but the producers only licensed those tunes for a limited time. It was difficult, in 1982 when the show ended, to anticipate the need to release the shows in a format that had not yet been invented. But once the licenses expired, the music could not be used in subsequent releases, so a DVD of the show has been long delayed.

As William Patry explains in his blog post on this case, the complexity of music copyright is that there are multiple rights and rights holders for each recording, including, at least, a copyright in the underlying composition (sometimes one for the music and one for the lyric) and a copyright in the performance. When dealing with video, the rights situation is even more complex, with layer upon layer likely owned by different people. These are the complications that go into re-releasing a TV show, but they are also the difficult shoals that have to be navigated when an academic wants to use existing video to teach filmmaking techniques, for example, or get permission to put a video into a digital archive.

The good news (if you were a fan) is that WKRP in Cincinnati will be released on DVD shortly. The bad news is that much of the contemporary pop music has been replaced with “elevator music” versions that were much cheaper for the producer to license. All those classic songs will no longer be “living on the air in Cincinnati.”  This small piece of TV history has fallen victim to the same burgeoning and increasingly expensive market for permissions that holds back much academic innovation in multi-media.

A more serious look at these problems for higher education can be found in the 2006 white paper from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society called “The Digital Learning Challenge,” which is linked under recommended reading in the right hand column, through our Connotea feed. It is a detailed (and rather discouraging) look at the many ways current copyright law hampers digital teaching and learning, and it isn’t even enlivened by a sound track featuring Pink Floyd or Blondie.

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