by: Terry Teachout
What is a library? Until fairly recently, the answer to that question was simple: It's a storehouse for books and manuscripts. The fact that books are increasingly "printed" on something other than paper doesn't change the fundamental purpose of libraries. They are our collective memory. Fortunately for posterity, a well-made book isn't hard to preserve. But in 1877, Thomas Edison invented a new way to preserve the past. He called it the phonograph, and it took a long time for librarians to figure out that the echoes of speech and music that Edison and his successors etched on discs were as important a part of our collective memory as the words that Johannes Gutenberg and his successors printed on paper.
Nowadays most people understand the historical significance of recorded sound, and libraries around the world are preserving as much of it as possible. But recording technology has evolved much faster than did printing technology—so fast, in fact, that librarians can't keep up with it. It's hard enough to preserve a wax cylinder originally cut in 1900, but how do you preserve an MP3 file? Might it fade over time? And will anybody still know how to play it a quarter-century from now? If you're old enough to remember floppy disks, you'll get the point at once: A record, unlike a book, is only as durable as our ability to play it back.
The Library of Congress recently issued a 78-page document called "The Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan" whose purpose is to ensure that our descendants will be able to listen to the sounds of the past long after we're dead and gone. It contains 32 recommendations, most of which, I suspect, will be filed and forgotten. Given the present state of the economy, I can't imagine that anyone on Capitol Hill sees the preservation of sound recordings as a top priority. But Congress can do one important thing that will help to save our sonic history without costing a cent: We need to straighten out America's confused copyright laws, and we need to do it now.
In Europe, sound recordings enter the public domain 50 years after their initial release. Once that happens, anyone can reissue them, which makes it easy for Europeans to purchase classic records of the past. In America, by contrast, sound recordings are "protected" by a prohibitive snarl of federal and state legislation whose effect was summed up in a report issued in 2010 by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress: "The effective term of copyright protection for even the oldest U.S. recordings, dating from the late 19th century, will not end until the year 2067 at the earliest.… Thus, a published U.S. sound recording created in 1890 will not enter the public domain until 177 years after its creation, constituting a term of rights protection 82 years longer than that of all other forms of audio visual works made for hire."
Among countless other undesirable things, this means that American record companies that aren't interested in reissuing old records can stop anyone else from doing so, and can also stop libraries from making those same records readily accessible to scholars who want to use them for noncommercial purposes. Even worse, it means that American libraries cannot legally copy records made before 1972 to digital formats for the purpose of preservation—not unless those records have already deteriorated to the point where they may soon become unplayable.
As part of its preservation plan for sound recording, the Library of Congress has made three common-sense recommendations for copyright reform:
• "Bring sound recordings fixed before February 15, 1972, under federal copyright law."
• "Enable recordings whose copyright owners cannot be identified or located to be more readily preserved and accessed legally."
• "Revise section 108 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 in order to facilitate preservation and expand public access to sound recordings."
These recommendations are discussed in detail in "The Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan," which you can read online by searching for that title.
Yes, intellectual property rights have become a sensitive issue in the age of instantaneous digital distribution, and rightly so. But copyright law was never meant to allow such rights to be restricted indefinitely. A time eventually comes when all books pass into the public domain. That's part of what makes a great book classic—the power to reprint or quote from it at will. Each time we do so, we fertilize our own culture, thereby helping to preserve it for future generations. Why can't we treat sound recordings the same way?
from: Wall Street Journal