The Importance of Sound Recording Preservation

According to a story on variety.com, efforts to preserve sound recordings are met by a "perplex" of issues preventing effective archiving.  Kudos for the great nounification of 'perplex.'  A recent study by the Council on Library and Information Resources "lays the groundwork for the National Recording Preservation Plan that was mandated under the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000 and will be published by the Library of Congress later in 2010." [full text of the Act]. 

As a longtime musician, I hated to see the unfortunate yet crucial discussion of the destruction or neglect of physical masters.  Contributing factors include the prioritization of resources and attention, costs, corporate mergers and organizational issues, and small labels now out of business.  The report also discusses the efforts of private collectors to preserve recordings while expressing concern over the decentralization and inconsistent quality of such efforts.  The seven solutions listed from a 2006 study by Nancy Davenport are important and often-discussed recommendations to other problems in music and copyright law, including legislative changes to enable archivists and the database problem, i.e. creating a centralized repository of rights (meta)data, who owns it, who controls it, who can access, etc. 

The report provides a great overview of the many audio preservation efforts currently underway by libraries, foundations and individuals.  One that caught my attention is the ARChive of Contemporary Music, a New York City institution which "may be closer than any other institution to approaching a comprehensive archive of popular compact discs."  While visits can be arranged to perform project-based research (I haven't inquired yet), it would be great to see this institution someday open its doors to the public.  Speaking of the database issue, I was excited to learn that Brewster Kahle has donated server space to the ARChive's National Discography project.  From the site: "Our humble objective? That the National Discography will be the authoritative resource for the recording industry, music fans, libraries, scholars, publishers, retailers and journalists -- not just the first place to go for accurate information, but the ONLY place."  I do not mean this sarcastically: good luck.

Another interesting snippet from the report: "The U.S. Congress has directed the Library of Congress to establish the nonprofit National Recording Preservation Foundation (NRPF) to support audio preservation. The law creating the foundation includes provisions for Congress to match funds raised by the foundation. The Library of Congress has created the foundation, but the initial work has been stymied by the challenges of raising required seed money and developing a sustainable business plan." (emphasis added)

The authors also touch on the issue of pre-1972 sound recordings.  Basically, for works fixed before February 15, 1972, state common law copyright protection is not preempted by federal law until 2067. See 17 U.S.C. 301(c).  The report notes the ridiculous outcome of a late 19th century sound recording (as if that many exist) having protection for nearly 200 years!

I've only made it through the first chapter so far and skimmed the rest.  I'm impressed by the comprehensive treatment given to a topic that I truly care about.  Later chapters provide in-depth discussion of formats, metadata standardization (attempts), project planning and other recommendations (other than just giving more funding!).  Audio recordings are snapshots of moments in time that inspire us, remind us, and move us in ways that other media alone cannot.  I look forward to the Library of Congress' full report.

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