Copyright Issues


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One of my most rewarding activities over the past 15-plus years has been working on behalf of copyright reform in the U.S., specifically to preserve historical recordings and make them available to students and the American public. These include the earliest recordings by African Americans (which I wrote about in Lost Sounds) and by many other immigrant and ethnic minorities, as well as by creators from all corners of society who helped shape our culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They are our cultural heritage.

Most people would assume that recordings made one hundred years ago, or more, would be in the public domain by now, free to access and use. But until recently they were not. Copyright laws, written largely by lobbyists, secured exclusive “rights” to virtually everything ever recorded for their corporate employers, who then buried these recordings out of sight. This despite the clear intent of the U.S. Constitution to ensure that older creative works enter the public domain.

As chair of the Association for Recorded Sound Collection’s Copyright and Fair Use Committee, I fought for many years, and with many others, to right this wrong. In 2018 we scored a major breakthrough with the Music Modernization Act, in which we were able to insert language creating, for the first time, a true public domain for U.S. recordings, as well as other benefits for scholars and the public. It was a tremendous battle, and enormous credit is due to Senator Ron Wyden, and to the public interest advocacy group Public Knowledge (, for making this possible. PK is non-profit, and welcomes donations.

There is much more to do, to include making “orphan works” (recordings for whom no owner is known) accessible, reining in overly long copyright terms (still 100 years or longer in the U.S.), and allowing libraries and archives to preserve copyrighted recordings using modern digital best practices. Both ARSC and the Historical Recording Coalition for Access and Preservation (, which I also chair, will continue to work on this, and I hope you will support these efforts.

Here are some publications bearing on these issues and the fight to preserve our recorded heritage.

“A Major Copyright Victory” (ARSC Newsletter No. 148, Fall/Winter 2018)

“The Music Modernization Act, With Changes Advocated by ARSC, Represents a Major Advance for Preservation and Access to Historical
(press release, Oct. 12, 2018)

“Only in America: The Unique Status of Sound Recordings under U.S. Copyright Law and How It Threatens Our Audio Heritage” (American Music 27:2, Summer 2009). Reproduced by permission. Copyright 2009 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois Press. No part of this article may be reproduced or distributed without the permission of the University of Illinois Press. Subscription information at

“How Copyright Law Affects Reissues of Historic Recordings” (ARSC Journal 36:2, 2005)

“Survey of Reissues of U.S. Recordings” (Council on Library and Information Resources and Library of Congress, 2005)

“Our Recorded Heritage Deserves to Be Heard” (Billboard, May 14, 2005)

“Showdown at the Copyright Corral: Why Scholars Need to Speak Up About Copyright and Recordings” (Popular Music & Society, July 2005)

Copyright & Fair Use Column in ARSC Journal (2004- )

Five recommendations by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections for changes in U.S. copyright law to facilitate preservation of and access to historic recordings. Comments by Tim Brooks at a hearing held by the National Recording Preservation Board in New York City, Dec. 19, 2006 (ARSC Newsletter 113, Winter 2007).

Recommendations to Copyright Office on legislation to make “orphan works” accessible. Tim Brooks, 2005.     Comment     Reply Comment

This page was last modified on July 27th, 2019.
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