In my last article, I looked at five audio dramas that, while copyrighted, have been effectively abandoned by the rights holders. Why does this happen?
The first reason is that audio dramas are very hard to sell commercially. There are exceptions. The BBC, Focus on the Family, Graphic Audio, and Audible have found some success that most smaller producers have not.
For those smaller producers, it can be tricky finding enough buyers so that the product can be sold at a reasonable price. This is particularly true with physical media, but can even be true for downloads where the time, effort, and expense of marketing can make selling or continuing to sell CDs or downloads onerous. Rights-holders of forgotten properties would struggle to find a new audience for their products and put a lot of time, energy, and money into making their stories available, and likely lose money in the process for at least a few years.
The second reason is that copyright protections lasts too long. In the U.S. Constitution, Congress is given the the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” If, as soon as someone writes a book, a play, or a song, someone else could steal it for their own purposes without payment, it would discourage creative endeavors and stifle the progress of the Arts. According to the Constitution, preventing that is the reason for copyright laws.
However, copyright laws are not written with that goal. There are writers I’ve met who honestly believe that the current copyright law term of life-plus-seventy-years will allow their heirs to collect royalties long after they are gone. The truth is that for the vast majority of writers, their work isn’t commercially viable throughout their entire life, and it certainly won’t be seventy years after their death. The life-plus-seventy-year terms ensures that most creators’ works will be forgotten, which is exactly what’s happening to so many audio dramas, even after their creators gave up on being able to make a profit from them.
Current copyright laws were not written with the average creator in mind, nor with the general goal of advancing the arts and sciences, but rather to benefit the biggest copyright holders: Disney, Warner Brothers, and the like. Of course, it’s not a uniquely American issue. Long copyright terms are present across the globe. This makes the issue impossible to solve. Thus, while the law might be creating the problem, the law won’t be able to solve it.
Despite the inability of governments to solve the problem they’ve created, audio dramas do find ways to be successful.
Companies with larger audio drama production capabilities have options others don’t. The BBC, with its worldwide fan base, can sell a dozen hours of dramatic performances for a single Audible Credit and still come out fine on the deal, even while smaller producers struggle with what Audible pays them. The children’s radio series Adventures in Odyssey can give fans of all ages access to its entire back catalog through a monthly or annual membership.
Other companies rely on the length of the recording. It’s worth noting that many of Audible’s forays into audio drama have been book-length adventures. Most of Audible’s original scripted audios clock in at over four hours in length. Audible gets big names involved, like Paul Rudd, John Cena, and Meryl Streep, and is able to create audio dramas which are great for long flights or long commutes. Even without the big names, Graphic Audio has managed to do something similar with its popularity among over-the-road truckers and those who travel long distances.
While such expensive options aren’t practical for independent producers, there are options emerging. Crowdfunding has been a game-changer for many podcast-based audio dramas, as support from sites like Kickstarter and Patreon have allowed many productions to be able to get something for the hard work they put into making these audio dramas available.
In addition, there’s a new app called Dramafy,which features hundreds of independent audio dramas for free, with ad-supported streaming or ad-free for a monthly or annual subscription. Dramafy splits its revenue with creators. This definitely provides some exciting potential for audio drama creators to make money from their work.
What can be done for audio dramas that remain copyrighted but have been abandoned? Those that have circulated in mediocre .mp3 files will most likely continue to do so. What could offer these works a better future? If a non-profit organization was formed to purchase rights of high-quality abandoned works from their creators and release them into the public domain. It would be a complicated process. In many cases, it’s hard to figure out who the rights owners or their heirs might be. Even then, it might be hard to convince the family. Any payment would be small, certainly smaller than the months and years that were often put into audio drama productions.
But if such an effort brought audio dramas unambiguously into the public domain, it would allow wide distribution. Educational institutions, radio stations, and non-profits could freely distribute them. Some might even find new fans in such a wide release. It’s a wild idea, but one that could allow audio dramas to have a more lasting cultural impact.