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An Unsound Future

October 15th, 2010 · 1 Comment


In an age where music is so easily copied and accessed, it’s hard to imagine that any valuable recordings could ever be lost. But a new study predicts a grim future for millions of recordings across America.

The National Recording Registry was established ten years ago, following the passing of a congressional bill. The purpose of the NRR is to “maintain and preserve sound recordings and collections of sound recordings that are culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant, and for other purposes” (Public Law 104-474; H.R. 4846). Recently, the NRR released a 181-page report, The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: a National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age. This report was the first “comprehensive, national-level study of the state of sound recording preservation ever conducted in the U.S.” 130 years since the invention of the phonograph, it’s about time the subject was addressed.

The report found that an estimated forty-six million recordings are held in American libraries, archives, and other institutions. Efforts made nationally in collecting and creating recordings are not matched by efforts to preserve them and this puts recordings of all types at stake. Furthermore, inconsistent local, state, and national laws have caused a “lack of national coordination… in addressing the challenges of preservation, professional education and public access.” The report states that not enough is being done to prevent a “permanent loss of irreplaceable sound recordings in all genres.”

Why does all of this matter? While most commercial recordings are not at stake at being lost, millions of recordings of performances, interviews, and broadcasts are at risk. So while the average Joe doesn’t have to worry about his precious Eagles and Zeppelin records ever being irreplaceably lost or damaged, scholars and historians face losing incredibly valuable resources. Someone conducting a study on race relations, for example, might use recordings of Minstrel shows as to demonstrate the willful acceptance and ignorance of racism in the late 19th century. A researcher for a film, be it a documentary or historical drama, might need to find old radio broadcasts for a project. The need for access to obscure recordings is far-reaching.

A huge part of the sound recording preservation problem is the “restrictive and anachronistic” copyright laws currently in place. Ironically, the copyright laws designed to protect recordings are essentially destroying them, by heavily restricting preservation methods. The report explains, “All US recordings, both commercially released and unpublished, created before February 15, 1972, are protected by a complex network of [copyright] laws.” As a result, any recording made before 1972 will not enter the public domain until 2067—95 years after the bill was passed. So, for example, a recording made in 1900 will not be able to legally be copied without permission until 2067, or 167 years after its creation. There’s no question that a considerable—if not irreparable—amount of decay will happen in that timeframe.

The good news is that copyright laws are not widely enforced, and library and archive facilities have some leeway in preservation and digitization. However, without legal rights to sound recordings, many institutions cannot procure the funding needed to restore and maintain their own collections.

Initiating a nation-wide study on the subject of sound preservation was a good first step on tackling the issue. What should be done next? Change the copyright laws, obviously. And while it would take years or decades to make copyright laws relevant to the digital age, librarians and archivists can take action in the meantime. The study states, “an individual representing one institution has noted that, unless or until instructed to cease and desist certain practices, his organization was compelled to ‘fly under the radar’ to support its mission.”

Awareness of the issue can also be a huge step in fighting loss of sound recordings. Educating record collectors and owners of original recordings on how to maintain and store their collections could go a long way in ensuring a better outlook for sound preservation.

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Category: Archiving Challenges · Copyright Issues · Digital Obsolescence · Media Obsolescence