By GAIL FINEBERG
According to a recent study commissioned for and sponsored by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library, most historic sound recordings created between 1890 and 1964 are nearly inaccessible to scholars, collectors and the general public for noncommercial uses.
The report concluded: "Evidence uncovered in this analysis suggests that a significant portion of historic recordings is not easily accessible to scholars, students and the general public for noncommercial purposes. There are many reasons for this, but the primary one appears to be a convergence of two factors. The first is that the physical barriers created by recording technologies change often and have rendered most such recordings accessible only through obsolescent technologies usually found only in special institutions. Second, copyright law allows only rights holders to make these recordings accessible in current technologies, yet the rights holders appear to have few real-world commercial incentives to reissue many of their most significant recordings. The law has severely reduced the possibility of such recordings entering into the public domain, at least until 2067."
The study found that copyright laws still protect the rights to fully 84 percent of recordings of interest to scholars and collectors made in the United States between 1890 and 1964. Of those protected recordings, rights holders have reissued only 14 percent on compact disc. This means that the vast majority of historically important sound recordings are available for hearing only through private collectors or at research libraries that collect the nation's audio heritage and have the equipment to play obsolete recordings.
The study and report, "Survey of Reissues of U.S. Recordings," grew out of a congressional directive to establish the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) at the Library of Congress to study the state of sound-recording archiving, preservation and restoration activities. On behalf of NRPB and the Library of Congress, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) supervised the project and commissioned historian and media research executive Tim Brooks, with the assistance of Steven Smolian, to conduct the study, which was co-published by both CLIR and the Library of Congress.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who was directed by Congress to develop a comprehensive national recording preservation program in 2000, said: "This is a significant study that presents an important challenge to archives and record companies to work together. We must assure that our recorded heritage is as accessible as possible for study and enjoyment."
Samuel Brylawski, formerly head of the Library's Recorded Sound Section and a co-author of the foreward to the report, said copyright laws protect the rights of pre-1972 sound recordings until 2067. "Although other copyrighted works routinely enter the public domain, this is not the case for recorded sound," he said, adding that only the copyright holder can legally make old recordings available. He said many historical recordings created with old recording technologies are in danger of physical loss and at risk "of passing, unnoticed, from the nation's aural memory."
State laws protect most pre-1972 sound recordings until 2067, in accordance with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. They cannot be copied and distributed without permission of rights holders. Unless a work has been reissued, a legal copy may not be found in a record store for another 62 years.
In extending copyright protection to owners for a long period, Congress sought to provide owners an incentive to reissue, and thereby preserve, older recordings. Wide dissemination of creative works is one recognized means of preservation. The report gauges how successful this incentive has been over time. On the basis of statistical analysis, this report shows that most pre-1964 recordings have not been reissued for public sale and are accessible only to those who visit the institutions that archive historical recordings or to individuals who own the recordings.
The study analyzed a sample of 1,500 published recordings in seven major genres (ragtime and jazz; blues and gospel music; country and folk music; music of U.S. ethnic groups; popular, rock, rhythm and blues music; classical music; and other sound recordings, such as spoken-word recordings and show music), made between 1890 and 1964.
The study determined the percentage of these historical recordings still protected by copyright laws and the degree to which they are made available by rights holders. The number of legal reissues of recordings made during this period varies considerably by genre. Twenty percent of country music recordings of this era are available commercially in the United States. Ten percent of blues recordings have been reissued, but only 1 percent of recordings of ethnic music issued before 1942 are still available for sale.
The study also found that many more U.S. historical recordings are available in foreign countries than at home. Many countries have a 50-year copyright law for recordings, a period significantly shorter than in the United States. For example, only 10 percent of historical blues recordings are available in America, although 54 percent are available for sale legally in countries that have the 50-year copyright law in effect.
Significant recordings unavailable legally in the United States include cylinder recordings of the John Philip Sousa band playing Sousa's most famous march, "Stars and Stripes Forever," Rudy Vallee's 1931 recording of "As Time Goes By" and Hoagy Carmichael's first recording of "Star Dust." Although bandleader Bob Crosby's 1930s and 1940s recordings for Decca are unavailable in America, many compact discs of these recordings are available on European labels.
This report, "Survey of Reissues of U.S. Recordings," is available online at www.clir.org/pubs/abstract/pub133abst.html. Print copies can be purchased at CLIR's Web site for $20 per copy plus shipping and handling.
Established by the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, the advisory National Recording Preservation Board (www.loc.gov/nrpb/) is appointed by the Librarian of Congress and consists of representatives from professional organizations of composers, musicians, musicologists, librarians, archivists and the recording industry. Among the issues that Congress charged the board to examine were access to historical recordings, the role of archives and the effects of copyright law on access to recordings.
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library's staff newsletter.