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Purpose of Study

The purpose of this study was to determine the legal accessibility of sound recordings published in the United States. The survey was designed to quantify the degree to which rights holders of historical sound recordings have made available, either directly or through licensees, past recordings that they control. It is premised on certain key assumptions:

  • the availability of past creative works is essential to learning and the growth of knowledge;
  • access to historical recordings has benefits both for the public-researchers, students, collectors, and enthusiasts-and for creators and copyright holders;
  • distribution of created works plays a crucial role in the preservation of those works, for one of the most reliable guarantees of preservation is the widespread dissemination of copies to interested individuals and archives.

Using a fact-based framework, this report seeks to determine the following three things:

  1. the proportion of historical sound recordings that are controlled by a present-day rights holder;
  2. the degree to which rights holders of historical sound recordings have maintained their catalog backlists of older releases and kept them available in the marketplace; and
  3. the degree to which non–rights holders, foreign and domestic, have taken action to make historical sound recordings available.

It is important to keep in mind that used (that is, preserved, noncurrent) copies of books and other printed materials of a work that are in circulation or in libraries serve to provide access to past works. Recordings do not follow this pattern. Because of changing recording and playback technologies, surviving copies of early recordings on cylinder, 78-rpm, or even LP format cannot be played on modern equipment. Therefore, their mere availability in antique formats does not necessarily make them accessible to the listening public. Moreover, access to original copies of past recordings is quite limited for the general public because most libraries do not have extensive sound-recording archives or interlibrary loan facilities for early sound recordings. For all practical purposes, the only way for most people to listen to historic recordings is through CD reissues or, more recently, through the Internet. For old and new recordings alike, both distribution channels are strictly controlled by U.S. copyright law.

This report focuses on the accessibility of historical recordings to scholars, students, and the general public for noncommercial purposes.


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