Copyright Laws Severely Limit Availability of Music

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Louis Armstrong

With a few exceptions, some of Louis Armstrong's earliest recordings are not available on major-label releases in the United States. Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Library of Congress

In the Public Domain

Thomas A. Edison listening to the New Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph, in a 1923 advertisement.

Thomas A. Edison, in a 1923 advertisement. Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Library of Congress

Some of the earliest sound recordings ever made are in the public domain. Recordings made by the companies of Thomas Edison between 1890 and 1929 can be used without restrictions. Legal title to those recordings passed to a successor company, but in 1950 it conveyed titles to the U.S. government. No other major company is known to have donated its rights to the public in this manner.

Source: Survey of Reissues of U.S. Recordings

'Justice Talking' Debate

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, "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."



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