Q-Many many years ago I bought a box of reel-to-reel tapes from a yard sale, and promptly forgot about them. A few weeks ago I was looking through them before throwing out the box. They included some unreleased tracks and demos from a music star (the tapes are from the early 1950s) before they became a huge success and Hall-of-Famer. I *think* these used to belong to a sound engineer of a small record label, which was later swallowed by a large label as far as I can tell. My question is, would the tapes belong to the current record company, the artists estate, finder’s keepers, or what?

A-You MAY own the physical tapes but NOT the copyrighted material on the tapes.
HOWEVER, the origin of the tapes is a question. There are many original master tapes floating around and the original owner is usually one of 3 persons/entities: 1) the record company who contracted the artist; or 2) the artist who paid for the tapes; or 3) the studio that mortgaged the tapes based on unpaid fees by the record company or artist. Sometimes, the studio was charged with holding “safety copies” (secondary archives) for the record company or artist and then went out of business or forgot to pay their storage bill and lost the tapes at auction. In that case, the owner is still the entity who paid the recording studio for the tapes (unless a contract says otherwise).

So if the question is, “can the true owner come and demand the physical tapes back?” That depends on how the yard sale proprietor got them. Do you have a chain of title for the tapes? Did you purchase them legally and did they come through a chain of legal sales?

A side note on one of the other attorney’s advice regarding making a copy of the tapes for personal use being “legal” based on fair use law. There is no established law on that. These are not consumer copies, they are original master tapes. So whether or not making a personal copy is legal is not something that the law has really answered. However, it is obviously much less of a concern than if you were asking whether you could sell the compositions or the performances contained on the tapes- that is clearly illegal.