Recorded History

Locked up by copyright laws.


Music lovers, take heart: The overwhelming majority of commercial recordings ever released in the U.S.—probably more than 90 percent—still survive in some form, somewhere. And you'll only have to wait until 2067 to hear most of them.

Last summer, the Library of Congress and the Council on Library and Information Resources released a study, commissioned by Congress, of a sample of 1,500 commercial recordings released from 1890 to 1964 in the U.S. Some 84 percent of these historic recordings were still under the control of a copyright owner, which under current law means that most will remain protected by copyright through February 2067.

That deadline was set by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which retroactively increased the copyright terms of pre-existing as well as new works. The extension was supposed to give copyright owners added incentive to reissue classic works in newer formats. Yet only about 14 percent of the study's sample had been reissued by rights holders, as compared with 22 percent that has been made available by "other entities," including foreign labels and others "operating under the legal radar."

For up to a quarter of the sample, the investigators could not precisely trace the recordings' ownership—an extra obstacle for anyone hoping to reintroduce an old favorite record to the modern world. A bit more than a quarter of the jazz and pop recordings surveyed were available on compact disc from any source, and for what the library dubbed "ethnic" recordings, the figure was only about 2 percent.

The study itself, incidentally, may not "be reproduced or transcribed in any form without permission of the publishers."