March 30, 2009 Public-Domain Status of Early Sound Recordings Delayed Until 2067 According to Library Report

Press Contact: Sheryl Cannady, Library of Congress, (202) 707-6456; Kathlin Smith, Council on Library and Information Resources, (202) 939-4754

Sound recordings were not protected by federal copyright law until 1972. A Library of Congress report indicates that the miscellany of state laws protecting pre-1972 sound recordings will extend copyright protection until 2067, creating a situation where some recordings dating to the 19th century are not available in public domain. The Library announced today the completion of a commissioned report that examines copyright issues associated with unpublished sound recordings. This new report from the Library of Congress and the Council on Library and Information Resources addresses the question of what libraries and archives are legally empowered to do, under current laws, to preserve and make accessible for research their holdings of unpublished sound recordings made before 1972. The report, “Copyright and Related Issues Relevant to Digital Preservation and Dissemination of Unpublished Pre-1972 Sound Recordings by Libraries and Archives’ is one of a series of studies undertaken by the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB), under the auspices of the Library of Congress. It was written by June Besek, executive director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts at Columbia University. The report is available free of charge at Unpublished sound recordings are those created for private use, or even for broadcast, but that have not been distributed to the public in copies with rights holders’ consent. Such recordings often possess considerable cultural and historical significance because they may be the only record of an event or performance. These would include radio broadcast recordings, oral histories and interviews conducted as part of field research or newsgathering, and authorized as well as bootlegged tapes of historic live musical performances for which no other recording survives. “While digital technologies make access relatively easy, there are major legal impediments to the delivery of sound recordings preserved by the nation’s libraries and archives to home computers and other digital access devices,” said Library of Congress Associate Librarian for Library Services Deanna Marcum. The patchwork of state laws protecting unpublished sound recordings made before 1972 is far less clear-cut than the federal copyright law. States may protect copyright through criminal, common or civil law. Thus, copyright protections for these sound recordings will endure far beyond the terms of other kinds of media. Books, sheet music, maps, motion pictures and photographs published prior to 1923 are already in public domain. To help bring clarity to the morass of rights issues, Besek’s report describes the different bodies of law covering these recordings and the uncertainties inherent in these laws, and provides guidance--using nine examples of unpublished sound recordings--for libraries to use when preserving and making these materials accessible to the public. In 2005, Besek addressed pre-1972 commercial recordings in another study for NRPB titled “Copyright Issues Relevant to Digital Preservation and Dissemination of Pre-1972 Commercial Sound Recordings by Libraries and Archives.” This report can be accessed at Established by the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000 and reauthorized in 2008, the advisory National Recording Preservation Board ( is appointed by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington 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. Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. It seeks to spark imagination and creativity and to further human understanding and wisdom by providing access to knowledge through its magnificent collections, programs and exhibitions. Many of the Library’s rich resources can be accessed through its Web site at and via interactive exhibitions on a new, personalized Web site at The Library’s collection of sound recordings is preserved at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, its state-of-the-art preservation facility in Culpeper, Va., which was made possible through the generosity of David Woodley Packard and the Packard Humanities Institute. 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 09-060
ISSN 0731-3527