Vinyl and the Death of our Cultural Heritage

In the last couple of months I’ve been discussing what I’m calling the death of our culturual heritage due to obscene copyright laws. In some ways, it’s worse than I even thought — and I’m both pretty cynical and informed.

There are thousands, if not millions of recordings that were issued on vinyl LPs but have never been reissued on CD. If you own a copy of some rare piece of vinyl, you’re lucky because you can still listen to it, provided it’s not already beat up and you’re reasonably careful with it (vinyl can last longer than magnetic tape). But nobody else can have that pleasure.

I didn’t realize that copyrights on sound recordings in the US from before 1972 were so draconian until I listened to this recent story on NPR’s All Things Considered. Copyright laws for printed matter and other materials published before 1978 were not nearly so bad.

The result is that recordings that are even fifty or more years old cannot be re-released without getting permission from the original copyright holder–typically the record label. In the case of some recordings, the copyright holder may not exist anymore, or the copyright might be part of some estate that doesn’t even realize it owns it, and so may be almost impossible to find.

In other situations the copyright may be owned by one of the major recording conglomerates which is uninterested in re-releasing it and would charge unreasonable royalties to anyone wishing to license it.

To me, the most ironic thing about old recordings, especially of popular music from before the 1960s, is that the labels themselves often don’t have a really good inventory of what they own, and they may not even own copies of the master tapes, or even the vinyl. So you could own a vinyl copy of a record that the record company doesn’t have a copy of, and yet they can stop you from making it available to anyone else, even for non-profit purposes.

I guess that’s what file-sharing, BitTorrent and CD-Rs are for.






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