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Survey of Reissues of U.S. Recordings

A Summary of a Report Published by the Council on Library and Information Resources

Survey of Reissues of U.S. Recordings

By Tim Brooks August 2005

This summary was written by Kathlin Smith

Go to a public library, the Web, or a good bookstore and you’ll be able to find a copy of Upton Sinclair’s seminal 1906 work The Jungle, along with many other books by American authors from the early twentieth century. Gaining access to the Sousa Band’s recordings of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” or other important sound recordings from the early twentieth century, is far more difficult.

Survey of Reissues of U.S. Recordings finds that most U.S. historical sound recordings have become virtually inaccessible-available neither commercially nor in the public domain. According to the report, the rights to 84 percent of historically significant recordings made in the United States between 1890 and 1964 are still owned by someone and are therefore protected by law. For most pre-1972 recordings, protection comes in the form of state, not federal, law until 2067. Because recordings cannot be copied and distributed without permission of their rights holders, the only legal way to obtain a CD of a pre-1972 recording is through a reissue. Yet the study found that rights holders have reissued-or allowed others to reissue-on CD only 14 percent of the pre-1965 recordings they control. Thus, most historically important sound recordings are available for hearing only through private collectors or at research libraries that collect our audio heritage and have the equipment to play obsolete, often-frail recordings.

why 2067?

Study Draws on Broad Sampling

The study was conducted by historian and media research executive Tim Brooks, with the assistance of Steven Smolian. It analyzed a sample of 1,500 published recordings commercially released in the United States between 1890 and 1964 in seven genres: jazz/ragtime, blues/gospel, country, ethnic, pop/rock, classical, and other. The study’s time span was broken into 15 five-year periods. To ensure that the study was restricted to recordings for which there is documented historic interest, Brooks and Smolian selected their sample from 20 modern discographical sources representing the seven genres. Two rounds of sampling were done. The aim of the first round was to estimate the proportion of all recordings for the study period that are protected. The purpose of the second round was to identify 1,500 protected recordings and to determine the proportion of such recordings that is currently available in reissue and the sources of those reissues.

Key Findings

Most recordings are still protected. The proportion of recordings that remain protected, which averages 84 percent, varies somewhat by period, but less so than might be expected. Even for the earliest period, 1890–1894, 39 percent of sampled recordings are still protected. In the late 1890s, the proportion rises to 62 percent, and in nearly every subsequent five-year period, it exceeds 80 percent. Classical and country recordings are the most heavily protected genres overall.

Reissues. On average, rights owners have reissued on CD only 14 percent of the recordings they control. However, the number of such reissues varies considerably by age and genre. For example, rights owners have reissued no more than 10 percent of recordings made before World War II, whereas they have reissued 25 percent or more of their post-War recordings. Twenty percent of country music recordings issued between 1890 and 1964 are available commercially in the United States; for that same period, 10 percent of blues recordings and only 1 percent of ethnic recordings have been reissued for sale. 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.”

Historical recordings are more accessible abroad. Foreign labels and small entities in the United States have made available a considerable number of historical recordings, despite laws that discourage unauthorized reissue activity in the United States. Copyright laws differ by country, and most countries have shorter terms of protection for rights owners than does the United States. So, while only 10 percent of historical blues recordings are available in the United States, 54 percent are available for sale legally in most other countries. So, for example, 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. Overall, entities other than the rights holder have been the sole reissuers of 22 percent of historic recordings.

Incentive to Preserve through Access?

Concern about the preservation and future accessibility of our country’s recorded-sound heritage led the U.S. Congress to enact the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000 and to create the National Recording Preservation Board under the aegis of LC. Congress directed the board to examine access to historical recordings, including the role of archives and the effects of copyright law on access to recordings. This study, in responding to that charge, challenges some policy assumptions-for example, that once a work is in the public domain, no one will want to preserve it, and that prolonged periods of protection will give owners an incentive to keep a work commercially accessible. As this study shows, most pre-1965 recordings have not been reissued for public sale by their owners. Many will remain inacccessible-and in an uncertain state of preservation-for two more generations.

More About this Report

Survey of Reissues of U. S. Recordings
Tim Brooks, August 2005.
ISBN 1-932326-21-9. 30 pages.

Commissioned for and sponsored by the National Recording Preservation Board, Library of Congress. Copublished by CLIR and the Library of Congress. The text of the report is available free on CLIR’s Web site at Print copies can be ordered at this URL for $20 per copy plus shipping.

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