The big music labels, led by Sony and Universal, are filing a lawsuit against the Internet Archive to stop the non-profit’s Great 78 Project. It’s an effort to digitize and preserve recordings on old 78 RPM records, a format discontinued in 1959. The labels feel the Archive, the closest thing the web has to a public library, is infringing its copyrights after digitizing tracks from big names like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. And the labels are asking for damages of $150,000 per still-copyrighted recording – the better part of $372 million in total.
The project’s aim is to preserve “underrepresented artists and genres” that might otherwise languish in obscurity. For all the songs of yore that still linger in the public’s consciousness, there are countless more now consigned to the dustbin of history. For them, the best-case scenario is their publisher properly stores the masters in case there’s ever a need to reproduce them. But given how easy it is for a company to junk material for a tax write-off, like in the recent case of Warner Bros., we can no longer rely on companies to treat their own history with the proper respect.
It doesn’t help that 78s are notoriously fragile, and if work to digitize them isn’t handled properly, their material could be lost forever. If we’re being honest, most of it is probably now only of interest to historians as a snapshot of what culture was really like. But, as weird as listening to Conrad Veidt’s When the Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay is to our modern ears, we all deserve a chance to listen to what was pop music in 1933.
– Dan Cooper
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