When music critic Alex Ross announced in The New Yorker that the golden tenor of pre-World War I opera star Enrico Caruso “remains one of the most transfixing phenomena in the history of [recorded music],” you could almost hear a thousand voices cry as one, “Most transfixing??? Dude: Have you even heard discs five through 16 of the Live Phish series?” The rest of us could either take Ross’s word for it or listen for ourselves. And happily, more of us can listen for ourselves than ever—thanks to the proliferation of free and legal rips of old 78 rpm and wax cylinder records available at sites like tinfoil.com, Turtle’s “78rpm” Jukebox, and most bountiful of all, the Internet Archive, where along with Caruso’s collected recordings you can find such dusty grooves as the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s “Livery Stable Blues” (1917) and Ada Jones’s “If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon” (1907).
For the right to download these relics you can thank a relic of another sort: the increasingly antiquated concept of the public domain. In 1923, when Billy Murray recorded “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” existing law guaranteed the record’s passage into the public domain by 1979, when the maximum copyright term was to expire. Since then, however, legislative tweaks have repeatedly extended copyright’s duration, so that now not one existing copyright will expire until the year 2019. Of course, nothing says Congress can’t extend the term once more, and all signs suggest it will, again and again, forever limiting recorded music’s public domain to its first two decades. Not that they’re bad decades. Turns out Ross is right about Caruso, for instance. And we’d be wise in any event to start finding as much to like about Caruso’s era as we can. It may be all the phonographic history we—the public—ever own.