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EDITORIAL: They only have eyes for a lawsuit

Hollywood goes after a small-time bar for singing an 80-year-old hit

- - Monday, September 1, 2014

Musical tastes have changed over the past 80 years. Swing, jazz, pop and blues gave way to rock and roll, country, Gospel, heavy metal, new wave, and even rap, if rap be rightly called music. One man's Mozart is an uncivilized man's noise.

Still, there's the enduring appeal of the golden oldies, celebrated in many a barroom with an a cappella tribute, for which we give thanks in robust voice. Establishments like Giacomo Jack's, a waterfront pub in Amityville, N.Y., brings out the tunes like "I Only Have Eyes for You," made famous by Dick Powell in the 1934 flicker "Dames." Dick's hit song has immersed Giacomo's bar in a tub of hot water.

Last week Warner Bros. pounced, claiming in federal court that the small pub hadn't paid the copyright fee and was stealing from the authors. The Hollywood music giant's concern for ghosts is touching, but money won't do the composers any good. Harry Warren died in 1981, and Al Dubin in 1945.

These songsmiths knew big success. Their 1934 hit lived on in covers by Al Jolson, Art Garfunkel, Bette Middler, Kenny Rogers, Frank Sinatra, the Temptations and others. Messrs. Warren and Dubin mostly wrote songs for the movies of Warner Bros., with more than 60 hits and even an Academy Award.

Though gone to the great sound studio in the sky for decades, Hollywood continues to squeeze as much money out of their work as it can. (It's called capitalism.) The music industry routinely sends out spies to small-town taverns like Giacomo Jack's to see if a live band happens to perform live music written when Franklin D. Roosevelt was making his first fireside chat.

If the bar hasn't made the required payment to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, then the lawyers, as forgiving as a Las Vegas casino, file a lawsuit seeking damages of $30,000 for every time someone sings it. Warner Bros. is suing Giacomo Jack's for $60,000.

This is how Congress allowed the copyright system to get out of control. Warner Bros. can send snoops to file lawsuits, and the company can continue living off the genius of Warren and Dubin through the year 2029.

That's not what the Founding Fathers, who favored hymns, minuets and Virginia Reels, had in mind with the Copyright Clause "securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." The limited time has become effectively unlimited as Hollywood applies star power to lobby star-struck politicians into ensuring a century of profit for every song. Al Jolson told his fans that "you ain't heard nothin' yet," and he was probably right.