Many concerns have surfaced among librarians and archivists concerning creating and maintaining digital collections. Before pursuing digitization, these custodians must first assure that the collections they are sharing with a growing global community are either in the public domain or owned by their institution. Digitizing by these guidelines protects institutions from costly lawsuits from creators or copyright owners, and saves valuable resources if projects have to be taken offline due to copyright infringements.
Proving ownership of copyright is especially difficult in sound recordings. Archivists and librarians are burdened by proving works-for-hire, copyright chain of custody (in which the heirs can assume ownership), copyright of unpublished works, and dealing with potentially orphaned published materials in their collections. According to current copyright law, archivists and librarians cannot preserve materials until they show signs of deterioration; sound recordings are frequently too deteriorated to preserve and digitize by this point. Without assuring that collections can be made freely accessible after digitization, many granting agencies will not fund digitization projects, placing a further burden on cultural institutions.
Nationally, the US Copyright Act of 1976 protects the copyright of materials, including that of sound recordings. Allowances for libraries and archives include fair use and the reproductions by libraries and archives, Sections 107 and 108, accordingly, though exemptions in both of these sections exist for sound recordings. All post-1976 recordings are protected for at least 95 years. Currently, recordings made before this point will begin to fall into the public domain in 2067. With the exception of recordings created by the Federal government, there are currently no sound recordings in the public domain in the United States.
The United States possessed some of the most strict copyright law in the international community until recently. In September 2011, the European Union extended sound recording copyright 20 additional years, from a 50- to a 70-year term. This law was changed in part due to recording companies and a few select artists, though many scholars and economists disagreed with the decision. This extension was only slightly less damaging than the extension proposed in 2006 that would have made the limit 95 years. Australia, another leader in the library and archival sphere, has a 70-year protection limit on sound recordings, though audio broadcasts are only protected for 50 years.
In many academic institutions, we hold materials from other countries. When I did an internship at the Bulgarian and Macedonian National Education and Cultural Center while I was at the University of Pittsburgh, I had to look up the copyright restrictions on their recordings, which were so precious because many of them were smuggled out of the region due to civil wars, and may be the only extant or one of the few existing copies. One of the major difficulties of creating digital collections that can be accessed globally is that some materials may be under copyright in their country of origin but not in other countries. Librarians, archivists, and other cultural custodians across the globe should continue to petition for copyright term limits that protect the material, allow for preventative preservation, and protect the interests of artists.