Science and Ancient Recordings

Music industry reporting is more about technology and business models than music. The focus is on new ways to make money selling recorded music or getting people to buy tickets to a show. Thanks to Alec Wilkinson’s superb “A Voice from the Past” in the May 19 New Yorker, the story of how physicist Carl Haber and colleagues unlocked ancient recordings with new technology should reach a wider audience. They aren’t in it for the money.

From piano rolls to Pandora, changes in copyright law applying to music result from new technology, not new music. The law on recordings doesn’t care if it’s Stravinsky or Zappa. Haber’s discoveries give us access to spoken words and music never heard before—even by the people who made the recordings. But they’re not new recordings and you won’t see music industry lobbyists hunting special treatment for them in the law.

I thought it all started with Edison’s phonograph invented in 1877 and the subject of U.S. Patent No. 200,521. It was a device to record and play back sounds. But earlier a French proofreader made a recording apparently intended to be read like a transcript, but not heard.

Working on the problem of how to play deteriorating media like wax cylinders, Haber‘s new technology played the sound of a folk song performed in 1860 in Paris. He applied methods used in his day job working on instrumentation for particle physics research, especially CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

Haber developed a scanning device to make digital maps of the surface of the media, even fragments of media. The maps are “played” using image analysis. His machines are named IRENE in honor of a fragile shellac recording of “Goodnight Irene” bought early in his experimentation. There are just four in the US and one in India. Besides “A Voice from the Past,” you can learn more at http://irene.lbl.gov/

This technology is deeply rewarding, not lucrative. He was honored as a 2013 MacArthur Foundation fellow, but otherwise his profit is probably the pleasure of solving a problem and hearing a voice from 150 years in the past. Inspired discoveries like this can energize in unpredictable ways. And while they won’t turn into profit this quarter, the music business needs them.

About Craig Pinkus

Craig Pinkus is a partner in the Intellectual Property Group. He also is a member of the Litigation and the Sports, Entertainment and Media Groups. He assists clients with a broad range of disputes and transactions involving all areas of intellectual property, entertainment, and other complex business arrangements. He has conducted trials and arbitrations throughout the United States and has argued appeals before the Seventh, Sixth and Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal, the Indiana appellate courts, and United States Supreme Court.
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