MELISSA BLOCK, host:
It's called the National Jukebox. We're talking about music and sound recorded at the beginning of the 20th century - 10,000 records worth -that you can now access on the Internet. The effort was launched yesterday by the Library of Congress and Sony Music Entertainment.
NPR's Tom Cole reports on what's being billed as the largest collection of historical recordings ever made publicly available online.
TOM COLE: The recordings in the National Jukebox date from the first quarter of the 20th century, a time, says Patrick Loughney, chief of the Library of Congress' Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, when this country's entertainment landscape was changing.
Mr. PATRICK LOUGHNEY (Director, Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, Library of Congress): Before the advent of recordings, people had to go to vaudeville and variety theaters to see this kind of entertainment, and the recording industry captured that history before it passed from the America scene.
COLE: Loughney points to the widespread popularity of opera and the way its melodies were embraced by all kinds of musicians like the Six Brown Brothers saxophone ensemble playing "Rigoletto Quartet" in 1916.
(Soundbite of music, "Rigoletto Quartet")
COLE: This recording and the more than 10,000 others are available for streaming free at the library's jukebox website. The project began about seven years ago at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which was working on its own archival effort to document all of the available information on all of the recordings made and released by the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1900 and 1950. The first half of that catalog now makes up the National Jukebox.
But David Seubert, curator of the Performing Arts Collection at UCSB, says there was a problem.
Mr. DAVID SEUBERT (Curator, Performing Arts Collection, UCSB): The biggest frustration now is that you go to our website, which is just a discography, and you're like, well, I want to hear that recording.
COLE: And that's where the library came in.
Mr. SEUBERT: The Library of Congress really, you know, was essential to this because they have the muscle to work with Sony to get a license to stream them online.
COLE: After a series of mergers, Sony Music Entertainment now controls all of the rights to the Victor recordings, says the library's Patrick Loughney.
Mr. LOUGHNEY: All of these recordings are made available to the library on a license basis, a free license, to make these recordings available through the library's website, but Sony Music retains all the rights to these recordings, otherwise.
COLE: So Sony controls the rights to the first recording of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra's "Rhapsody in Blue" with composer George Gershwin at the piano.
(Soundbite of music, "Rhapsody in Blue")
COLE: Recordings are searchable through the database created for the library by the University of California, Santa Barbara's Victor Project, and the Victor Talking Machine Company recorded just about everything for commercial release. It made money on what used to be called ethnic recordings, music and spoken word intended for a wide variety of recent immigrants, and it sold campaign speeches by presidential candidates like Theodore Roosevelt, says UCSB's David Seubert.
Mr. SEUBERT: This was pre-radio. This was pre-television. You know, Roosevelt and the candidates, they released a whole series of records then. You know, you can get their position.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
President THEODORE ROOSEVELT: The welfare of our people is vitally and intimately concerned with the welfare of the farmer.
COLE: Getting all of this material online was not easy. Forget about the logistics of the database and digitizing the audio, sound recordings made before 1972 are covered by a chaotic collection of state, not federal, copyright laws.
Again, UCSB's David Seubert.
Mr. SEUBERT: The digital revolution in other areas has already happened. You know, with photographs, we already have huge troves of photographs online. With books, Google Books has put millions of books online. That really hasn't happened with these early sound recordings, and that's because of copyright law. If they were in another media, they would have already been in the public domain, and we would have been able to digitize them and put them online.
COLE: And changing that will be even harder than launching the National Jukebox. It will require an act of Congress.
Tom Cole, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)