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The question is how many people will have access to it.
Beyond the library's mission of physical conservation and restoration of its vast archive, providing public access to it is both a driving goal and key hurdle these days. Physically converting aging films or recordings to contemporary playback media is a breeze compared with navigating the copyright clearances that would permit broad access.
It's a byproduct of copyright law, which characteristically lags several steps behind changes in technology. This reality is particularly challenging when it comes to music: Although music compositions have been under the purview of federal copyright law since 1831, sound recordings didn't get that protection until 1972. Before that, ownership of recordings was determined by state and common law — something the 1972 federal law didn't change.
And there's the rub for DeAnna. The shift to digital technology that makes streaming access possible will inevitably push the boundaries of current copyright law. Deanna added that, if nothing else, academia should have access to the music.
"We should be able to have Internet streaming access on secure sites — and more than one, not just our reading room," he said. "We should have partnerships with universities around the country — we should have at least that" ability to allow researchers and students remote use of the library's materials.
Matthew Barton, the recorded sound section curator, points out: "Anything else from before 1923 — a book, a movie, a published song, sheet music — is public domain now." Not so for the music in that same time period, and as a result, many recordings, even those that have been digitized, can't legally travel beyond the library's walls unless a morass of ownership issues can be unraveled. "The whole idea of copyright," DeAnna said, "is that eventually it does become public domain."
DeAnna points to so-called orphan works, for which the rights holders are not readily identifiable, as evidence of the confusion. A prime example is the Savory Collection of nearly 1,000 live recordings made by recording engineer William Savory in the late '30s, discs now residing with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. They encompass previously unknown extended performances by such musical luminaries captured in their prime as Ellington, Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Judy Garland, Artie Shaw and Chick Webb.
Museum director Loren Schoenberg said, "My goal is to have all of it, every last second of it, available on the Internet. If it was up to me, I'd just throw it on the Internet, let everybody sue each other and happy new year. But you can't do that, because you're dealing with [musicians'] estates, labels, record companies and publishers."
A proposal that Congress bring all pre-1972 sound recordings under federal copyright law is in the public comments stage.
"There's a considerable body of sound that could come under orphan work legislation if it was controlled by federal copyright law," DeAnna said.
"It seems to me not to have worked taking all this century's sound recordings off of our soundscape," DeAnna said.
Indeed, according to a 2005 survey conducted for the library's National Recording Preservation Board, of 1,521 recordings made from 1890 to 1964, only 14% has been made available to the public.