The Internet Archive Is Being Sued for Its Project to Digitize Shellac 78 Discs

For years, the Internet Archive has been carefully preserving 78 RPM records created with fragile shellac for something it calls the Great 78 Project. The idea is that it is impossible to tell whether digital recordings or original records will last longer, so it is archiving both, and has built up quite the library of recordings.

Andy Maxwell, TorrentFreak:

Record labels including UMG, Capitol and Sony have filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in the United States targeting Internet Archive and founder Brewster Kale, among others. Filed in Manhattan federal court late Friday, the complaint alleges infringement of 2,749 works, recorded by deceased artists, including Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby.

I am not a lawyer; I do not know how valid this suit is. But, writing as a layperson, this threat stinks. While versions of some of these recordings are present in newer formats, there is to me a vast difference between preserving these specific pressings compared to making available any version. I have no idea if that makes a legal difference — again, not a lawyer — but there are artistic and technical reasons which should not be ignored. Different record pressings sound different, sometimes by a lot.

Besides, it is not as though people are treating the Great 78 Project as a replacement for a streaming service. The Internet Archive does not show total plays or downloads, but the most-viewed recording in the collection has less than 140,000 views as of writing. Notable for a 1942 folk recording, for sure, but the most popular song from the same artist on Spotify has over half a million plays.

For these record labels to claim that the Internet Archive is “undermin[ing] the value of music” is laughable. They are preserving specific recordings in an industry that sees all versions of an album as identical, and treated the loss of thousands of original masters as an inconvenience.