It’s a wonderful opportunity to hear a wide variety of old stuff – from Fats Domino and Count Basie to Tommy Dorsey and Doris Day, via Hank Williams and Bob Wills. These are some of the all-time greats, and you’re hearing the recordings as they come – not cleaned up and sanitised for the digital age, but more or less as they’d have sounded on an old record player.
The first 33 and a 1/3 rpm recordings appeared as early as 1931, but it wasn’t until 1948 that Columbia released the first 12″ long player (23 minutes per side) that played at 33.3 recurring. The following year, RCA introduced the 45 rpm single, but until then, when you bought a single, you bought it on a 78.
Most people kept their 78s in a kind of album, something like a photo album, with the records placed in sleeves that were the pages of the book. Hence, when long players were introduced, they were called “record albums” because they contained the equivalent of 5-7 78 rpm singles. My dad had such an album, and when I was young I would take out the 78s and play them on our old mono record player. I ended up smashing them all through carelessness, but I remember fondly the Purple People Eater, and the spoofs of St George and the Dragon and Little Blue Riding Hood by Stan Freburg in the style of Dragnet.
Apart from their nostalgia value and their interest to musicologists, the very interesting thing about these ripped 78 records is the question of copyright. As you should know, mechanical copyright (that’s in the physical recording itself) lasts for just 50 years. In the original 1911 Act of Parliament, the 50 years started from the date of the master recording; in the revised 1957 Act, this changed to 50 years from the date of release. In 1987, it changed again: still 50 years, but from the end of the year in which the recording was made. Anything that came out before January 1 1958 is now out of copyright – that includes all of Elvis’ Sun records and some of his early RCA ones. In a few short years, the first Beatles record will be out of copyright – unless the law changes.
In July this year (last month), the EU adopted a proposal that the 50-year term be extended to 95 years. The extension will only apply to recordings still under copyright when the law comes into effect – so anything out of copyright now will remain so. Read more here.
However, the 78 records guy is not necessarily in the clear. There are publishing and performance copyrights to consider. Publishing (what was once the physical sheet music), lasts for the lifetime of the composer(s) plus 75 years – which is why you rarely hear the whole of Happy Birthday sung in a movie – any exerpt over around 30 seconds is subject to a royalty payment (small excerpts are counted as fair use). Performance copyright adds more murk to the issue, as it includes broadcast – which might be interpreted to mean playback over the internet.
It’ll be interesting to see if the 78 rpm database remains available, but catch it while you can.