Who owns recordings of numbers stations?

Interesting summary of a case where an indie label sued a major for copyright infringment, and where the indie is totally and utterly in the wrong.

Irdial is a tiny label that released a CD of intercepts from "numbers stations" -- the radio stations where a neutral voice recites mysterious numbers and codes, presumed to be part of the international espionage system.

WEA is the major label for Wilco, whose album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot samples the numbers stations recordings on Irdial's album.

Irdium sued WEA for copyright infringement -- in other words, they claimed that they owned the mysterious voices that float in the ether all around us at every hour of the day and night. They claimed that they, and not the spook who recited the words Yankee Hotel Foxtrot into his mic over and over again, were somehow the creators of the mysterious broadcast. Unfortunately, WEA settled instead of countersuing Irdium into a smoking heap of slag for proffering this notion that absolutely offends reason.

Joe Graz has some analysis on his blog:

They claim, first, that their recording is unique because of the radio interference that surrounds it, and that this interference gives them a copyright in the recording. Second, they edited the recording to make it more interesting. Third, they processed the recording to make it clearer . Each of these, they say, gives them exclusive rights in their recording.

I don't know UK copyright law very well, so I don't know whether this claim has more merit there. But under American law, Irdial probably would have lost had the case gone to trial. First, simply recording a radio broadcast does not give a person rights in the recording. A recording of a preexisting transmission does not have the requisite originality for copyrightability. Second, Irdial's editing may have been sufficient "selection and arrangement" to give rise to a copyright in the whole track, preventing wholesale verbatim copying. But from the description they give, there were no edits within the "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" sample; the sample Wilco used was an unedited slice of Irdial's source material, and thus Irdial's edits cannot have given rise to copyright in the sample. Finally, the equalization and processing. Irdial admits that the EQ was "to remove noise" – not for any creative purpose.

Link (via Copyfight)

Update: Christopher sez, "Despite their questionable copyright claims to numbers stations recordings, Irdial is not all bad. In the past they released much of their catalog under a "free" license, which to my untrained eye looks a lot like Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs. Hyperreal hosts a mirror of these files, including the numbers stations."