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Survey of Reissues of U.S. Recordings by Tim Brooks

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Commissioned for and sponsored by the National Recording Preservation Board, Library of Congress (August 2005)

Access to the full study is provided by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR)

Summary: This study, commissioned by the National Recording Preservation Board and published by the Council on Library and Information Resources and the Library of Congress, is the first attempt to quantify the degree to which rights holders make available the historical recordings they control. It covers recordings made between 1890 and 1964 and is based on a sample of 1,500 historic recordings listed in widely-used discographies or in the National Recording Registry. Thus it is not a study of all recordings but rather of those that scholars have identified as in some sense important.

Among the major findings:

Most historical recordings are controlled today by identifiable owners, primarily major record companies that have absorbed older, smaller labels.

Only 14% of controlled historical recordings are available from the rights holder, either directly or through licensing.

Availability is highly skewed toward more recent periods—about one-third of historical recordings from the early rock ‘n’ roll era (1955-1964) are available, versus 20% of those from the big band swing era (1935-1944) and 11% of those from the early jazz age (1920-1934). The percent available from before 1920 approaches zero.

Some genres of music are almost totally unavailable. Only one percent of recorded ethnic music, the music of minorities and foreign-language immigrant groups, is available from rights holders (tens of thousands of such recordings were made in the early 1900s).

There is a clear demand for historical recordings. Non-rights holders, including foreign labels not subject to U.S. law and small, illegal U.S. operations make available another 22% of the recordings studied, more than the rights holders.

The situation in the U.S. is in sharp contrast with other countries, where copyright for recordings expires after 50 to 75 years and older recordings are kept available by a vibrant public domain.

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