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March of Technology Could Trample US Audio Heritage

March of Technology Could Trample US Audio Heritage

Quickly progressing technology and a minefield of copyright laws threaten preservationists' work to keep historical sound recordings alive for future generations to hear, according to a recent report from the Library of Congress. New audio formats may well turn today's MP3s into tomorrow's wax cylinders, and hazy copyright laws sometimes make it difficult for archivists to gain funding.

By Mike Pearson
09/30/10 11:50 AM PT

From fragile early wax recordings to today's podcasts, the nation's audio heritage is at peril, a report from the Library of Congress has concluded.

The report, an outgrowth of a 2000 law mandating the Library of Congress to put together a national media preservation plan, found that efforts to preserve sound recordings are a haphazard patchwork threatened by poor funding and technical skills, copyright restrictions and, in the case of modern recordings, the very ephemeral nature of the Internet.

"It is relatively easy to recognize the importance of recorded sound from decades ago. What is not so evident is that older recordings actually have better prospects to survive another 150 years than recordings made last week using digital technologies," the report's authors write.

Threat of Obsolescence

One of the key problems with preserving media, whether it be audio files, films or still images, is the constantly shifting nature of technology, said Howard Besser, a New York University professor who heads the Moving Image Archive and Preservation Program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

From old wax cylinder recordings to WWII-era wire recordings, the technology to listen to older recordings is constantly becoming harder to come by.

"We still have the wire records, we still have the media, we still have the wax recordings, but we don't have the machinery to play it back," Besser told TechNewsWorld.

The same will be true of today's dominant audio format, MP3.

"The likelihood is that 10 to 15 years from now, most software will not support MP3," he said.

Copyright Issues

A key problem in making sure the vast holdings of record companies and other private content owners -- particularly materials that were created in the digital age -- can be preserved and maintained is copyright law, according to the report.

"Under present laws and many existing licensing agreements, it is not legal to copy much born-digital content to public access servers and provide access to it in an institutional setting," according to the report.

While copyright law appears to be routinely ignored by both preservationists and rights holders when it comes to preserving media, report coauthor Sam Brylawski told TechNewsWorld that copyright issues are still impeding efforts to save recordings before they disappear forever.

"Most preservation projects involve outside funding, and funders are less likely to give money to projects that can't be made publicly accessible," he said.

Various Recommendations

The report recommends changing U.S. copyright law to make it easier for preservationists to make materials, particularly orphaned recordings for which no owner can be found, available to the public domain.

The authors also recommend investing more money to train preservationists, particularly at small and medium institutions, to save recordings.

Why It's Important

While the idea of saving old recordings sounds nice, it's sure to meet fierce competition for public and private dollars in today's stressed economy.

However, Besser said it's enormously important to save the history contained in these recordings.

"For the average person, certainly for children, to teach them about another time period, to have them hear the voices from that period is profound," he said.

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