Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century – Alex Cummings

Review From User :

This history of piracy covers everything from copying piano rolls and sheet music in the nineteenth century to pirating mp3s and leaking tracks on YouTube. It includes fascinating facts about the industry. Everyone with an interest in music should read it.

I loved reading about the avid, competitive jazz collectors of the 1930s and the expense some outlaid for a home disc engraver to copy rare records. It also, to some extent, provides a history of musical evolution. Apparently, free form boogie-woogie is rather difficult to copyright.

Throughout the book, there is an engaging discussion about who owns the rights to music and its distribution: the composer; the artist; the recorder; the record company If someone covers a piece of music, to what extent does that belong to them Ethical questions give the discussion nuance; some pirates justified their actions by saying that they were providing a service to the people as record companies failed to produce or reissue classic, niche records that were culturally important. Of course there were also mobsters and inside-jobbers doing it for the cash! Excellently, one of the pirating outfits of the 1950s 'bootleg boom' cheekily named themselves 'Jolly Roger'. The section about the birth of the mixtape and hip hop is a brilliantly researched account that really captivated me.

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It was a time when music fans copied and traded recordings without permission. An outraged music industry pushed Congress to pass anti-piracy legislation.
Expand text… Yes, that time is now; it was also the era of Napster in the 1990s, of cassette tapes in the 1970s, of reel-to-reel tapes in the 1950s, even the phonograph epoch of the 1930s. Piracy, it turns out, is as old as recorded music itself. In Democracy of Sound, Alex Sayf Cummings uncovers the little-known history of music piracy and its sweeping effects on the definition of copyright in the United States. When copyright emerged, only visual material such as books and maps were thought to deserve protection; even musical compositions were not included until 1831. Once a performance could be captured on a wax cylinder or vinyl disc, profound questions arose over the meaning of intellectual property.

Is only a written composition defined as a piece of art? If a singer performs a different interpretation of a song, is it a new and distinct work? Such questions have only grown more pressing with the rise of sampling and other forms of musical pastiche. Indeed, music has become the prime battleground between piracy and copyright. It is compact, making it easy to copy. And it is highly social, shared or traded through social networks – often networks that arise around music itself.

But such networks also pose a counter-argument: as channels for copying and sharing sounds, they were instrumental in nourishing hip-hop and other new forms of music central to American culture today. Piracy is not always a bad thing. An insightful and often entertaining look at the history of music piracy, Democracy of Sound offers invaluable background to one of the hot-button issues involving creativity and the law.

Introduction

Chapter 1: Music, Machines, and Monopoly

Chapter 2: Collectors, Con Men, and the Struggle for Property Rights

Chapter 3: Piracy and the Rise of New Media

Chapter 4: Counterculture, Popular Music, and the Bootleg Boom

Chapter 5: The Criminalization of Piracy

Chapter 6: Deadheads, Hip Hop, and the Possibility of Compromise

Chapter 7: The Global War on Piracy

Conclusion: Piracy as Social Media