Memo from Ralph Vaughan Williams to the EFDS Committee

Letter No.: 
March, 1936

Memo.  From RVW to EFDS Committee on copyright (March 1936)*
There is a good deal of loose thinking about folk-song and dance “belonging to the people.”

Our Society deals almost entirely, not in folk art in its’ original form, but in a revival of it made possible by the skill, knowledge and astute insight of certain individuals.  These individuals have made copies, transcripts and versions of the original material and it is these copies which we have to deal with and not the original traditional stuff.

The question therefore is to whom do these copies belong and what do we owe them, if anything for making use of such copies.

There are two aspects of the problem – legal and moral.  If the collectors of folk-music and dance have only a legal and not a moral right over their material we might feel justified in certain cases in evading the law.  If, on the other hand they have a moral, but not a legal claim I feel that this Society would be guilty of great meanness towards those who have made our work possible if they did not recognize their claims.

In my opinion, both legally and morally the transcriber of a folk-song or dance ought to be treated as if he were the original author of it.

The transcriber has used his skill in noting the tune, his knowledge in knowing where it is to be found and his artistic insight in realizing its’ beauty and its’ importance as a national asset.  And this applies, not only to purely traditional art but to such things as Playford as anyone who takes the trouble to compare the original with one of, say, Cecil Sharp’s transcriptions can see for themselves.  On the legal side there can I think be no doubt.  About 20 years ago the F. S. S. took the legal opinion of a great copyright lawyer Mr Scrutton and his opinion was that the transcription of a traditional melody (and here I would make clear that I am referring to the melody and words only and not to any added arrangement or accompaniment) is as much the transcribers’ property as if it was his original composition.

As regards the moral aspect I will take the particular example of Cecil Sharp, though it applies of course equally to all collectors. Sharp gave his whole life, he sacrificed his health and wealth and used all his artistic musical education to preserving and making known to our own country our own traditional art.  Without him and his coadjutors the EFDS would not have existed.  Is it not fair and just – especially now that he is no longer here that those who depended on him should reap a just reward from his labours?

As regards the Society itself – here we have a large and expensive organisation devoted to the theory and practise of folk-song and dance.  Is it not fair that those who benefit by it should help to pay the cost?

In former times these costs were met largely by the sale of printed copies – But now owing to the gramophone and broadcasting this source of income is reduced to a minimum and the only way of ensuring that those “who served the altar shall live of the altar” is by the payment of performing fees.

Personally I should like folk art and all art to be free and I hope one day that it will be – but such a state of things will entail that those who provide this art must be able to keep body and soul together while doing so.

I hear rumours of a suggestion that such traditional melodies as are still available at their original source – and such as like Playford already exist in print should be re-noted and re-issued free of performing fee.  This is of course legally possible but when it was actually done by Miss Neal in the early days of the movement we all thought it a very mean trick and I feel strongly that no such tune should be re-issued without paying some adequate compensation to the original discoverers without whom we should never have heard of these tunes.

* A copy also attached to Minutes

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Written in an unidentified hand.