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Copyright Laws Severely Limit Availability of Music

Archivists and collectors have long lamented the lack of access to older recordings. So the Library of Congress commissioned a team to find out just how many are out of print. The report -- released in August -- suggests that over 70 percent of American music recorded before 1965 is not legally available in the United States.

Sam Brylawski, an archivist at the University of California Santa Barbara, and the former head of the recorded sound division at the Library of Congress worked on the study.

"The recording industry is a business, and their business is to sell records," Brylawski says. "And when the esoteric material loses its favor with the public, they have no responsibility to keep those in print. So recordings fall out of print, and they stay out of print."

But it's not just economics that keep older recordings out of print. It's also a matter of copyright. Sound recordings made after 1972 are protected by federal law. Recordings made before that were covered by state and common law copyright. These laws do not have expiration dates. The Library of Congress study found that 84 percent of recordings from before 1965 cannot be reissued without permission from the copyright holder, which is usually the original record label.

Some music lovers continue to take matters into their own hands by sharing MP3 downloads of forgotten LPs and 45s across the Internet, and on Web sites devoted exclusively to old music.

"There are a lot of good performances that are going to essentially go unheard," says record collector Max McMillan, who runs one of these "sharity" sites, VinylOrphanage.com. "Unless I happen to stumble across it in a thrift store, and encode it, put it on my Web site, more than likely you're not going to hear it at all."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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