I really want to be happy about this announcement, as shared by Nate Anderson at Ars Technica. The donation is certainly exceedingly generous, including some two hundred thousand recordings from the twenties to the forties. In many cases, the Library will be receiving the master copies on original media including metal and lacquer discs and mono tape. Not all of the recordings are music but Anderson highlights some real gems that are, many that are uncut include between session chatter.
The recordings come from Universal’s in-house collection and feature the best existing master copies of Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” in 1947 and Les Paul doing the “Guitar Boogie.” [T]hey feature plenty of material that was never released from such artists as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong.
While this is of immense historic value, the commercial value for most of it is more limited. An important Library of Congress study found that only 14 percent of pre-1965 recordings are available commercially; even in the age of iTunes, huge quantities of recorded music still can’t be purchased.
And this donation doesn’t change the public accessibility to these recordings all that much. Anderson mentions streaming but I cannot find the original LoC announcement to see if there are more details. None of the other trustworthy mentions of this donation state otherwise. The NPR post about it suggest that Universal already digitized anything it felt was of commercial value and is making the gesture perhaps to avoid the cost of further digitizing works it feels aren’t worth selling.
It is grand that such high quality copies will be digitized by our nation’s library and archived for posterity. It is not so much that we’ll have to wait a generation or more, under the current copyright law, to be able to do anything with these recordings that the label doesn’t explicitly permit, and likely only at a dear cost.