RIAA Copyright Pressure Silences Historical Radio Archive

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ReelRadio, a site that streams an archive of often decades-old historical radio shows, has been forced to take down much of its library after the RIAA complained that the site was operating outside the terms of its license. The letter of the law is tight, and the RIAA is insisting that the near 20-year-old site now meets all of its requirements.

When sites like The Pirate Bay come under copyright holder pressure, there is often a big backlash from users who see such action as unfair. That being said, it’s generally accepted by both sides that The Pirate Bay courts trouble by, rightly or wrongly, laughing in the face of copyright law.

The situation now faced by ReelRadio, a site dedicated to the streaming of archived historical radio, sits at the other end of the spectrum, but nevertheless the site is still facing potential dismantling by the RIAA.

In existence since 1996, ReelRadio still looks and feels like a site made in, well, 1996. Its classic feel is further outdated by the content it hosts, decades-old ‘aircheck’ demo recordings which were often used to showcase radio announcers before being placed in the archives.


Aircheck recordings appear to be popular among nostalgia hunters who can pick a memorable year from their life or another historical moment and become transported back in time. It’s a million miles away from what most people see as damaging piracy yet the RIAA is now applying the copyright thumbscrews to tax-exempt ReelRadio.

The problem is this. Airchecks are broadly split into two categories. ‘Unscoped’ airchecks contain not only the DJ or announcer’s voice, but also the music played in between. Airchecks recorded for troops fighting in Vietnam, for example, contain music being played during that era. ‘Scoped’ airchecks have the announcer’s voice intact but the music removed, leaving edited recordings that fail to flow.

ReelRadio streams both kind of recordings, or rather it did until the RIAA came knocking just over a week ago. Let’s be clear, ReelRadio does in fact have a license to play the music contained in its ‘unscoped’ airchecks. However, after years of operating trouble-free, the RIAA now wants the site to operate strictly within the parameters of its statutory license.

“The RIAA has determined that our service fails to meet the requirements for ‘archived programs’, which must be at least five hours in duration and may not be made available for more than two weeks. The service must also display the Title, Artist and Album of each featured song, but only while the recording is being performed,” ReelRadio President Richard Irwin explains.

The problems faced by the site are immediate. Irwin says he carries no airchecks with a duration of five hours and obviously the site makes them available for more than two weeks. Also, their streaming method does not cater to the display of meta-data. Worse still, it appears the RIAA also wants ReelRadio to do the impossible.

riaa-logo“The RIAA insists that we obtain permission from the copyright owners of these old radio broadcasts. Many broadcasters understand the difficulty of this requirement, since nearly all radio stations have changed ownership, format, and call letters, many times over,” Irwin explains.

“Nevertheless, we are expected to provide the RIAA with an explanation of how we have permission from radio stations that no longer exist and copyright owners who have no interest in historic recordings of their property.”

As a result of the RIAA complaint, ReelRadio has been forced to remove more than 1,100 ‘unscoped’ airchecks. Its ‘scoped’ airchecks, which are not part of its license, remain available under ‘fair use’ provisions.

The RIAA has given ReelRadio until August 8 to provide its response and holds the ability to close the site entirely by suspending its license. Whether it will choose to do so remains to be seen, but it’s clear that if it does there will be no gain whatsoever to the RIAA, but a really big loss to history.

“I would like to see the RIAA recognize the unique character of our historical archive,” Irwin told TorrentFreak.

“The statutory law was written for online radio stations and automated playout systems. It didn’t consider historical radio recordings. The law is outdated and inadequate. They don’t have to go any further, and they shouldn’t.”

Legally the RIAA appears to be on solid ground, but the court of public opinion on preserving nostalgia is likely to see things quite differently.

Those wanting to check out some unscoped airchecks can do so on YouTube. They won’t be going anywhere soon, there’s little doubt about that, so check out the gem below featuring the world’s easiest phone-in competition followed by a piece of unbelievable advertising for Winston cigarettes (1m 30s).


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