The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
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    Hoarding, Archiving, and the Public Domain: Universal Vault Edition

    The New York Times Magazine just dropped a piece on the complete destruction of every master recording in Universal's West Coast vault. I haven't even finished reading it, because it's so terrible I have to digest it in installments and take breaks. Hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable master tapes were destroyed.

    There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.

    There are no more original recordings by Buddy Holly. They were all in the vault. The core of Chuck Berry's musical achievement burned. Decades of seminal work by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday ... that's just the beginning of the list. Read it for yourself, but maybe only a few paragraphs at a time. It's hard to take.

    It's a major loss to the history of human culture. And the company had kept it hushed up. I applaud the Times on their investigative work.

    Oh, by the way, there were unreleased session masters in there, too. Lots of them.

    And here's the thing: those recordings were part of our shared heritage. On one level, that musical history belonged to all of us. But on a legal and financial level, they belonged to Universal Music Group, who kept them in part of a warehouse they rented from former sibling company Universal Studios, who let them incinerate.

    But a lot of the music in those recordings only belonged to UMG in the 21st century because copyright laws had been repeatedly changed. Everything in that vault recorded before 1952 would have been public domain before the fire hit, based on the laws in place when the music was actually recorded.

    Would that have changed anything? I don't know. We're talking about one-of-a-kind physical artifacts, which would have retained some of their value even after the music in them became public property. In fact, they might have had much more value, as unique assets that allowed UMG key advantages over their competitors. And maybe that would have changed the incentives.

    The incentives of nearly-interminable copyrights, which are allegedly designed to protect our artistic heritage, often align to damage or destroy it.

    Let's start with the fact that a lot of that music, including lots of unreleased music, was just sitting in that vault. Why hadn't UMG released it? Because they didn't have to. No one else could. The law gave them exclusive rights to those recordings, so they had no competitors. UMG could just keep all that music in the back, like the crate with the Lost Ark.

    We think of copyright as the right to publish something, but it is more accurately described as the right to keep work from being published. Exclusive rights to publish means that you can keep other people from publishing it. That's what copyright is on a practical level: the right to get the court to stop someone else from selling something. But if you have exclusive rights, you also have the right NOT to release something. No one can make you sell your property, right?

    What that leads to, when you have copyright terms lasting an unprecedented 95 years, is big music companies (and film companies, and book publishers, and, and, and) ending up owning a lot of old things that no longer have huge commercial appeal and that don't seem worth reissuing. But on the other hand, all those things collectively are the company's property, and there may be a way to make money on them someday, so there's no reason to let anyone else have them, ever. 95-year copyright means a lot of things get kept in the back room by private owners who don't really want them and don't want to let them go.

    This is how priceless cultural artifacts end up in a hoard when they should be in an archive. God forbid massive corporations give, or even lend, their libraries of priceless master tapes to libraries or museums that would protect them. Because, you see, that would let other people have access to that art.

    And the incentives change when your copyright protections run out. When you know that every other record company is about to release their own copies of Billie Holliday's Stay with Me, you have an incentive to reissue it yourself. And more, importantly, to remaster it with improved sound quality, exploiting those original master tapes. Maybe even to throw in some previously unreleased material. But if there's no competition, you don't get around to it.

    "But wait, Doctor Cleveland," some of you will say, "doesn't the long term of copyright create an incentive for companies to protect all those old masters?" The answer, evidently, is no. Not enough. Our intellectual property regime didn't cause this fire. But it sure didn't help. And that's a damned shame.


    Tape Degradation Factors and Challenges in Predicting Tape Life    2008

    From about 1950 through the 1990s, most of the world’s sound was entrusted to analog magnetic recording tape for archival storage. Now that analog magnetic tape has moved into a niche market, audio professionals and archivists worry about the remaining life-time of existing tapes. link

    Interesting 35 page analysis on the topic. So many ways the tapes degrade.

    There is apparently also a growing lack of the current manufacture of, or existence of, high end analog tape playing machines, or money for audio engineers to use them on archived material.

    Time would likely have degraded much of the lost material without a fire.  If the masters were not damaged by time or this fire, a small 'niche' market may not have been big enough for the investment in restoration.....with today's streaming earbud generation of listeners,

    The problem of "niche" market and profitability only underscores the point that historical preservation shouldn't be left to for-profit corporations.

    There are people who've gotten grants to restore old silent films, for example, in order to preserve them, but aren't allowed to because the rights to those films are privately owned (sometimes to owners who can no longer be traced).

    And,it is clear that recording companies *do* go back to the masters, since re-mastered editions do keep coming out. The sound quality on the original tapes are so, so high (because recording technology could capture much more than playback technology could play, or even than new playback technology can play).


    I dunno doc, after having a day to think on what was bothering me about your post: though I am happy to be corrected, I think you are venturing into red herring territory here and that actually is detrimental to a sound logical argument about public domain issues.

    If something is one of a kind and irreplaceable and copying will not help, public domain has nothing to do with it. I'll will be perfectly forthright and say I don't know anything about master recordings and the technology of duplicating them, but nowhere do I see you argue that this could have and should have been done. You are just arguing that because the public did not have ownership, that somehow has to do with the originals being lost in the fire?

    As to protecting archives of any kind and precious one of a kind objects: public institutions can have fires, too. And earthquakes, floods, theft, looting and wars or fallen governments with total defunding of public institutions. This is something I do know about, as an art historian and appraiser of fine art. It's a long time, passionate unsolved argument between archeologists and the art market: if something has high monetary value, does it not insure that it's taken care of for generations, whether public or privately owned.

    Archives of little monetary value especially have a notorious lack of the necessary public funding. Monetary value makes people want to own things and take care of them, whether public or private ownership. As much as we academically inclined like dusty old stuff, most people could care less. If it doesn't have monetary value, it doesn't often get taken care of so well by either taxes or donations. Even though monetary value is also inducement to theft or looting.

    It is often:take care of the living humans first. Especially in the case of war or chaos, archeologists argue looting should get high attention. And the answer often is: who gives a shit about that stuff right now? People are dying! How dare you care more about history than living people? This is actually where I am sympathetic to the private ownership argument against the archeologists who believe monetary value hurts. A lot of great one of a kind objects survived wars and fallen governments because private owners felt it had monetary value that could save their lives.

    I've also been in more than a few historical societies and institution collections that have objects that I consider incredibly precious but have little monetary value, so they are crumbling into dust. Because no one will pay for the labor to conserve or restore which will cost more than the monetary value of the objects. I even own such things myself! I.E., it will cost more to deacidify that drawing than it's worth, and I don't have the money to burn, so I don't do it and it's not going to last much longer and it will be gone soon, just like me. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

    Also there was this other article over at The Atlantic a couple weeks ago that caught my eye the other day and so was also in my mind

    The Books of College Libraries Are Turning Into Wallpaper

    University libraries around the world are seeing precipitous declines in the use of the books on their shelves.

    By Dan Cohen, Vice Provost for Information Collaboration at Northeastern University, May 26

    Now these are mostly not one-of-a-kind items. I was seeing tragic implications myself here, thinking as I do of them as wonderful one-of-a-kind collections, made me very sad. But I'm not rich so I am not going to endow them to be kept in perpetuity. And it seems the next generation will not care to keep them in good shape, precisely because many of them have been copied or they can buy digital versions for pennies! And they feel the money could be more wisely used for other things. On the other hand, I bet whichever books in those collections have considerable monetary value,those will be much more safely kept and already are being much more safely kept. And especially one-of-a-kind of monetary value, if they happen to have such things.

    You know, AA, that's fair. And certainly, intellectual property is not the only issue here. (And yes, libraries are also subject to disasters. But I'm spending my days in a the rare books room at the University of Texas right now, and the objects around here seem carefully preserved and protected.)

    There are a lot of daunting challenges in historic preservation, and there's never enough money, and getting the *content* of these masters into the public domain doesn't solve those problems.

    But on the other hand, as long as that content is *not* public domain, no one can even begin to undertake those problems. 

    If all those masters were in the public domain (and had not been burned), we would have no money to archive or preserve them. The best we could hope for is to seek major grants, or start a fund-raising campaign.

    But as long as those masters belong to a private corporation, we can't even try to find grants or donors. There's nothing to do at all.

    Dr. Strangelove on taking private property from corporations..!!

    hah. I'll remind you that Mitt's on board with his corporations are people, too, my friend....

    Not only that, since Citizen's United they're opaque people.

    Thanks for responding.

    I guess where my thoughts take me is this as regards the relationship with public domain: unfortunate as this reality might be, you can't interest the majority in taking care of physical objects if most assign no monetary value to them at all. The concept of "sentimental value" is: one man's sentiment, another's garbage.  Ironically, taking care of such things is an elite, educated thing, so one has to depend on elites to fund caretaking, not say, taxes.

    This applies across the board, whoever owns something, public, corporate or private. I.E., the high monetary value makes them care that that Picasso in their public museum is taken care of, even if they think their kid could paint it just as well. If it's got high monetary value, they will not kvetch about money spent to protect it. Many don't care as much about Aunt Nellie's letter that reflects the times nor, say, music that is no longer popular.

    Of course if we think of Kafka's works that almost got burned, and new AI-based pattern recognition or anomalies or other ways of searching that might identify something X or Y group might find precious among Petabytes of data when a novel is a few hundred kilobytes, we have to acknowledge a whole new ballgame.

    Also audio and video compression have changed the game - you can get a watchable 2 hour movie (standard TV size) in 700Megabytes, so almost 3000 films (or 6000 hours of TV) on a 2 Terabyte disk. I think a CD compressed to MP3 is 60Mbytes, so 35,000 albums on a 2 Terabyte disk? (3500 for original quality). The big cost is time and a powerful machine to compress fast.

    A lot of this discussion is out of my knowledge base so I can't really weigh in. But I can not believe that if much of this material was made available for preservation the money wouldn't have been found to preserve it. Surely money would have been found so that all the jazz artists' work would have been preserved. And at least the more popular rock/pop artists.

    As a music lover and jazz lover, like you, I feel this loss keenly.

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