WKRP and Stupid Copyright Laws

The iconic WKRP in Cincinnati is not being syndicated or available on DVD in its original format because it's classic rock soundtrack is hamstrung by copyright laws and music licensing fees.

Alex Tabarrok has an interesting post on “WKRP and the Tragedy of the Anti-Commons.” The iconic program is not being syndicated or available on DVD in its original format because it’s classic rock soundtrack is hamstrung by copyright laws and music licensing fees.

From Amazon’s review of the DVD of WKRP in Cincinnati:

One of DVD’s most requested titles, WKRP in Cincinnati is a blast from the past and an absolutely golden oldie. But this first-season set is bound to cause static with fans who have eagerly anticipated its release. Because of pesky music rights, the songs don’t remain the same. “Hot Blooded” is not playing when mild-mannered newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) puts on a toupee in anticipation of an awards-dinner date with bombshell station receptionist Jennifer (Loni Anderson). It’s “Beautiful Dreamer” and not “Fly Me to the Moon” that chimes when Jennifer’s doorbell is sounded. Any number of generic songs have replaced the contemporary and classic rock so vital to WKRP, which is, after all, set at a radio station…

Wikipedia explains:

Music licensing deals cut at the time of production were for a limited amount of time (approximately ten years). In addition, the show was videotaped rather than filmed because it was cheaper to get the rights to rock songs for a taped show. Once the licenses expired, later syndicated versions of the show did not feature the music as first broadcast, but rather generic “sound-alikes” by studio musicians to avoid paying additional royalties. In some cases (when the music was playing in the background of a dialogue scene), some of the characters’ lines had to be redubbed by sound-alike actors….

Notice that no one really gains here from the surfeit of copyright, not even the copyright holders. Is Foreigner really better off by excluding listeners from a few well-timed seconds of Hot Blooded?  On the contrary, a little youthful nostalgia adds to demand. But the copyright holders, each in their eagerness to profit, raise the transaction costs of producing the whole product so much that it either isn’t produced at all or is produced, as in this case, in a way which greatly reduces consumer value.

Is there any sanity to this? I grant that the soundtrack is integral to the show. But the show rather clearly transforms the music into something completely different, so you’d think there would be a Fair Use exemption for sampling. And, as Tabarrok notes, it’s not at all clear that anyone benefits from this concept of licensing rights.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Chefmarty426 says:

    Same issue with the much missed ‘Buffalo Bill’ with Dabney Coleman – I bought the DVD specifically for the dream sequence in which Bill hallucinates to Ray Charle’s ‘Hit the Road Jack’ – the whole episode was cut from the DVD.

    I haven’t played it since.

  2. DC Loser says:

    When the lawyers get involved, you can count on Stupid to surface somewhere.

  3. john personna says:

    The thing that’s critical is that we must rein in length of copyright. We are moving toward perpetual terms. That combines with the above to say that no one will ever see WKRP again.

    I might wish for other improvements, but the cleanest solution is “strong but short” copyright. Let them play these games for say, 50 years, and then put it all in public domain. Let WKRP show up on Library of Congress or Google video servers after that.

  4. They’ll get blood out of that stone someday, SOMEHOW! Even if it takes millions and millions of dollars worth of lawyers, they’ll scrape out some meager license fees! Wait a second….

  5. Bill Jempty says:

    Other classic television shows have had to delete scenes(The Muppet Show had whole sketches taken out when the shows were put on DVD) or change music because of copyright issues. The most infamous of which was when The Fugitive Season Two Part 1 was released and almost all the music of the original shows was replaced.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    Were any of the music clips on WKRP longer than five or six seconds? I taped music clips for t.v. and radio in the 80s for things like intros and exits from basketball programs, and while the producer required me to supply the artist name, song and publisher, I was under the impression they were claiming some sort of “fair use.” I might be wrong. But how can someone lose value for a five or six seconds of drums and power chords, with no words, and likely a voice over from the announcer? Sounds at most like free advertising.

  7. mattb says:

    When the lawyers get involved, you can count on Stupid to surface somewhere.

    No offense, but the lawyers are not to blame here — they’re just doing their job. The real issue is, frankly, the modern corporate form. There are two reasons for this:

    1. The non-natural lifespan of the corporation — This has led to the ridiculous extension of corporate copyright to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication (for individual work it’s now authors life +70) — see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_Term_Extension_Act#cite_note-1

    2. The consolidation of financial (and political) power made possible for corporation through the ownership of copyrighted material. Which makes extending copyright all the more important.

    The bigger problem was that the system was designed in an era when different media, like peanut butter and chocolate, was typically kept separate due to technological restrictions.

    Now, due to mixed media, everything gets really fuzzy fast. The classic example (even more so that WKRP and the Muppet Show) is the story of the commercial failure, public-domain success, and subsequent re-commercialization of It’s a Wonderful Life: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_a_Wonderful_Life#Release

  8. Ben says:

    For a slightly less dignified, but no less influential example, the Beavis and Butthead series was put out on DVD without most of the music videos, which was everyone’s favorite part of the show.

  9. mattb says:


    Pro-copyright lawyers have been chipping away at fair-use for years — especially when it comes to for-profit media words (see attempted prosecutions of “GirlTalk”).

    Three really great reads and watches are:

    The Fair Use Comicbook: “Tales from the Public Domain: BOUND BY LAW?” (Published via Duke U’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain) – http://www.law.duke.edu/cspd/comics/ (it’s pretty balanced)

    And two (very pro) copy-left documentaries:
    Goodcopy/Badcopy: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4323661317653995812#
    RIP: A Remix Manefesto: http://ripremix.com/

    And, of course there’s lessig’s work too (in particular “Free Culture” – http://www.free-culture.cc/ — note the whole book is available for download).

  10. Jack says:

    But… but… but… PROFIT!!!

    James, you have to learn to live with the GOP you support.

    This is what they do, this is what they support.

    So, deal with it, or actually learn what rapacious jerks they are.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    A brief sojourn to my go-to source for all things legal, wikipedia, I think answered my question. A series of lawsuits in the 90s involving rap sampling, curtailed the fair use of small segments of music where the original source was recognizable. So even if the WKRP samples are short, many of them are very recognizable.

  12. Alex Knapp says:

    The 100%, bar none, absolute worst example of this is the replacement of Georiga on My Mind at the end of the Quantum Leap episode “M.I.A.” with generic studio pablum.

  13. Nancy says:

    Whoa! Copyright laws are NOT stupid.

    If I do the work, then I am entitled to be paid for it.

    Just because it is an artist or a musician or an actor doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be paid.

    I can just hear all of you yelling bloody murder if you worked all week and someone else picked up your paycheck.

    Think about it.

  14. Ben says:

    Nancy, you’ve kinda missed the point of the criticism here. It isn’t the existence of copyright laws that are stupid, it’s the length. Should your heirs still have exclusive control over your work and profit from it 69 years after you’ve been buried?

  15. Trumwill says:

    This is a situation that has largely resolved itself. There isn’t a TV show made today where the music rights for DVD release aren’t spelled out in the contract. It’s a problem for shows that were written prior to the expectation for DVD release, but they’re relatively rare.

    I don’t blame Foreigner and the like for using the leverage they have. They were paid for one thing, but now the producers want to use it for something else. Maybe Foreigner is asking too much, but maybe the producers simply take the attitude that Joyner does that they should essentially give it away for free.

    I agree with the other comments about copyright-length, but I don’t consider it to be the central issue here.

  16. James Joyner says:


    I don’t blame Foreigner et. al. for enforcing their rights under the law. I’m saying that the law is silly.

    Foreigner deserves to be paid for the sale of records containing their songs. If a movie or TV show uses an entire song as part of a soundtrack, they should pay for it. But the a few seconds of the hit songs of the day on a TV show about a radio station? That’s fair use.

    Even crazier is that, for example, the various home fix-up shows have to blur the images of artwork hanging in the homes. Seriously? It’s not like the art is making the show more valuable. Or that showing the painting takes money away from the artist.

  17. michael reynolds says:

    I’m on both sides of this as a copyright holder and as a guy who occasionally tries to get rights to reproduce song lyrics in my books.

    The process with music is absurdly difficult and complex and just downright moronic. With Agent Orange I got a guy on the phone and he said, sure, whatever and sent me a fax. With Paul Simon I got permission — a full year after my request, months after the book came out and I’d already pulled the lyrics. With Zeppelin, Hollywood Undead, and several others I couldn’t even make contact. It’s just ridiculously cumbersome.

    Meanwhile, here’s what I’m asking for: Can I please use four lines of your song, crediting your band, and then have a couple hundred thousand of your target demo read it? They should be paying me, not making me jump through hoops or asking ridiculous amounts of money.

    So there’s a whole lot of stupid out there.

  18. Tlaloc says:

    in general intellectual property is a concept best regarded with amusement and then discarded as ludicrous. As a basis for an entire branch of law it’s insane.

    The ideological basis of property is that only a limited number of people may use the object in question at once. This is simply not the case with ideas which can be replicated infinitely at essentially zero cost. The idea that without intellectual property laws no one will create is belied by the vast majority of human existence during which we had no IP laws and yet some of the greatest works of art and music were created.

  19. Trumwill says:


    To me, if the music is important to the show, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to saying that the artist should get a piece of it. If it’s not important to the show, then what is the big deal with replacing it? It seems to me like an attempt to have it both ways.

    Thinking about it further, I do agree that when we’re talking about “a few seconds”, that’s a bit much. But I don’t think that the whole song has to be there. I’m not sure what the cutoff should be.

  20. Tlaloc says:

    Do not get me started on copyrighting DNA.

  21. michael reynolds says:

    The idea that without intellectual property laws no one will create is belied by the vast majority of human existence during which we had no IP laws and yet some of the greatest works of art and music were created


    They worked under a patronage system. You want the church and state responsible for paying for all art?

    I own about 100 odd book copyrights, and trust me, I wouldn’t be writing for free.

  22. michael reynolds says:


    The music rights holders could settle this just by being reasonable. Charge 5 bucks a play, just so you don’t surrender the principle, and move on.

  23. John Peabody says:

    “Happy Birthday” is under copyright protection! Maybe this is too late, but even well-respected documentaries are affected….from Wikipedia: ” In the 1987 documentary Eyes on the Prize about the US Civil Rights Movement, there was a birthday party scene in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s discouragement began to lift. After its initial release, the film was unavailable for sale or broadcast for many years because of the cost of clearing many copyrights, of which “Happy Birthday to You” was one. Grants in 2005 for copyright clearances [12] have allowed PBS to rebroadcast the film as recently as February 2008.”