Lawyer's Music Comes from Public Domain Playlist

Bob Schwartz

Technology lawyer Robert S. Schwartz has spent decades working on copyright issues, going back to the Sony Betamax case in the early 1980s that led the Supreme Court to rule that making and selling VCRs isn’t infringing. Now, he’s trying to fund completion of an anthology of classic American pop music that is free from copyright restrictions. 

Many of the songs being collected by David Berger and Chuck Israels, who have been doing the research and writing the “lead sheets”—copies of songs’ basic elements like melody lines—for the “The Public Domain Song Anthology” are in danger of being forgotten, said Schwartz, who is himself a musician. 

Besides practicing law, Schwartz leads the Bob Schwartz Quartet, playing flute and saxophone at Sunday brunches and other functions around the Washington, D.C., area. He was invited to provide the entertainment Oct. 2 when the American Library Association, the Library Copyright Alliance, and the Re:Create Coalition awarded Washington-based copyright lawyer Jonathan Band the L. Ray Patterson Copyright Award for championing fair use and the public domain. 

The groups wanted a playlist of songs that were in the public domain—that is, free for use without copyright restrictions—and Schwartz’s group had one ready. That’s in part because Schwartz and his colleagues have been working for several years to compile the anthology of  arrangements of 400 works in the public domain in the U.S. that are free for musicians to play without worrying about infringing anyone’s rights. 

“Initially, we saw this simply as a way for working musicians to assure venues and rights organizations that no copyright interests were being infringed,” Schwartz said. “But we’ve all come to see it primarily as an educational and cultural project, to make these songs available and useful to students at every level.” 

The project is about 80 percent complete, Schwartz said. But, working with the library organizations and American University law professor Peter Jaszi and others, he is trying to come up with a way to make it available to the public for free while still compensating Berger and Israels.