October 3, 2005 Library of Congress Study Finds Majority of U.S. Recordings Not Available to the Public

Press Contact: Sheryl Cannady, Library of Congress, (202) 707-6456 | Sam Brylawski, National Recording Preservation Board, (202) 250-7146 | Kathlin Smith, Council on Library and Information Resources, (202) 939-4754

The Library of Congress has announced the results of its commissioned study on the nation’s audio heritage. The study found that most of America’s historical sound recordings have become virtually inaccessible—available neither commercially nor in the public domain. 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, 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, “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.”

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-1965 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 analyzes a sample of 1,500 published recordings in seven major genres, made between 1890 and 1964, to determine the percentage of 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, yet only 1 percent of recordings of ethnic music issued before 1965 are still available for sale.

The report also finds 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, while 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 the John Philip Sousa band’s cylinder recordings of his 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.

“Survey of Reissues of U.S. Recordings” is available at www.clir.org/pubs/abstract/pub133abst.html. Print copies can be purchased at CLIR’s Website 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.

The Library of Congress (www.loc.gov) is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the world’s largest library with more than 130 million items, which includes more than 2.7 million sound recordings.

The Council on Library and Information Resources is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the management of information for research, teaching and learning. CLIR works to expand access to information, however recorded and preserved, as a public good.


PR 05-190
ISSN 0731-3527