346: The Democracy of Sound by Alex Sayf Cummings

by Gerard


346.730482: Cummings, Alex Sayf. The Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 223 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-985822-4.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 340: Law
  • 346: Private law
  • 346.7: North American private law
  • 346.73: United States private law
  • 346.7304: Property law
  • 346.73048: Intellectual property
  • 346.730482: Copyright law

When a work is created, who owns it? In most cases, people would automatically credit the creator with ownership. The creator normally says who can reproduce the work and how. This is the domain of copyright law: just who has the right to copy a publication. This works well for a written creation, but what of a musical composition? Who owns the music, the sound? Can you own sound? These are the questions that faced the fledgling recording industry immediately after the invention of the phonograph. Alex Sayf Cumming examines the history of musical copyright law and how the recording industry copes with increasing nuance in The Democracy of Sound.

Recording copyright infringement is not a new problem. The issue of musical ownership reared its head as early as 1877, when counterfeiters were secretly duplicating wax cylinders onto which the music was recorded. Opera singers of the 19th century, hoping to make a little money by repeatedly recording their arias for phonograph makers were shocked to find substandard duplications of their work on the market. Back then, though, you could easily tell the difference by simply how loud the cylinder played. Once records came into play, there was a whole new field of copyright issues.

And then Congress got involved. Interestingly, the discussions in Congress foreshadow the formation of the FRBR (Functional Requirement for Bibliographic Records) standards in that they wrangled over the difference between a work, an expression, and a manifestation of a work. Their decision to err on the side of caution when wording the new Copyright Act of 1909 led to a deeper loophole for counterfeiters and bootleggers to work with when proliferating copies of original works.

The post-WWII boom in jazz fandom and recording begat a renaissance in bootlegged works. One of the more interesting problems is when bootleggers were the only people helping to perpetuate interest in forgotten artists. Collectors would bumble through urban slums, offering to pay residents for any old recordings they might have, and then later duplicate them for other enthusiasts. Should we as a culture prosecute them for saving cultural artifacts?

After that, you get your standard discussion of 1970’s bootleggers and counterfeiters with a discussions of elicit concert recording, illegal records copiers, and rare recording session junkies. Cummings’s exploration of modern music piracy is perhaps the most tedious. Wrangling with the ownership of digital music, mashups, torrents, and downloads is frustrating in the fact that most of the lawmakers legislators working in this arena weren’t born in the digital age. While this isn’t a direct indictment of their abilities, it does speak to the question of whether the law can ever catch up to the technology.

In The Democracy of Sound, we get a interesting chronicle of court decisions and laws that helped to shape modern music copyright as well as the history of music piracy in all its forms. Thankfully, Cummings tries to stay away from in-depth discussions of case law, opting for more easy to understand overviews. This doesn’t do much, however, to make the legal cases and the congressional committees any more interesting. The history of recording methods, artists, and companies from the early 20th century was far more intriguing than the nuances of copyright law. I dutifully marched through this volume, but not with glee. If you are interested in music or legal history, go ahead and give it a try.