Bolero, one of the most popular and recognisable pieces of classical music, is about to start a new movement in its long and bizarre copyright history.
The sonorous 90-year-old work by the French composer Maurice Ravel, entered the public domain this week but a legal challenge is seeking to extend the copyright for another two decades.
Bolero, beloved of ice-skaters and movie makers, is a repetitive melody which rises to a triumphant crescendo. It has proved a serial money-spinner for a succession of copyright owners, including Ravel’s brother’s masseuse, her hairdresser husband and his second wife.
France’s Society of Authors, Composers and Music Publishers (SACEM) has now been presented with a dossier which seeks to take advantage of a legal loophole which could extend Bolero’s international copyright - worth an estimated €1m a year - for another 20 years.
The challenge is based on the fact that Bolero was originally a score for a ballet. Although Ravel wrote the music, the challengers claim that the credit for its conception in 1928 should also go to the original choreographer, Bronislava Nijinska, and director and scene-maker, Alexandre Benois.
Since Benois did not die until 1960, his copyright does not expire for another two decades, according to two off-shore companies representing descendants and copyright holders of the three artists. Under French law, the period of copyright for one artist in a collaborative work applies to all.
SACEM, the body that administers copyright payments in France, said that it had rejected the claims as baseless. The copyright of Bolero belonged to the composer Ravel alone, the organisation said.
The French newspaper Le Figaro, which broke the news of the legal challenge, said that the consortium of claimants was waiting for a refusal from SACEM in writing. “The tug of war will then have to be settled in court,” the newspaper said.
Bolero is already one of the most commonly played pieces of classical music. Dozens of performances, without payment of copyright, are scheduled all over the world in coming weeks.
Bolero often appears as the background music in TV or film advertsiements. It was used by the British ice skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean for their gold medal-winning performance at the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984.
Famously, the final crescendo of Bolero also provided the background when the characters played by Dudley Moore and Bo Derek made love in the 1970 film 10 by Blake Edwards.
Ravel described his work as “a simple and direct piece of writing without the slightest attempt at virtuosity”.
The composer died unmarried and childless in 1937. His heir was his brother Edouard, who died in 1960, leaving the rights to his former masseuse, Jeanne Taverne, who died four years later.
A tangled legal battle in following years saw the rights divided between a number of claimants, including Ms Taverne’s husband’s second wife Georgette.