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  • Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century by Alex Sayf Cummings
  • Tracey Elaine Chessum
Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century. By Alex Sayf Cummings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Cloth $29.95, Ebook $12.09. 272pages.

With the advent of Napster and other file-sharing networks, American society was forced, yet again, to ponder the question: Who owns a musical recording? The answer to this question is muddled by overlapping claims to ownership and by current copyright law’s focus on protecting the interests of American businesses. Does the composer of the song own the recording? The artist who records it? The company who pays for the recording and marketing? From another angle, when consumers buy that musical recording, does it become their property, or are they merely buying a license to listen to the recording? If it is their property, is the consumer able to give it away to others as they would with an article of clothing, without reference to its creator? Is it “fair” to the creators to allow consumers to pass a product with a seemingly endless usability from person to person? If it is only licensed to the consumer, how far does this license extend? Is the consumer only licensed to listen to that recording in their home? Are they allowed to let others listen to that work along with them? How many times can that recording be listened to before the license expires?

In his book, Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century, Alex Sayf Cummings illustrates how these questions, surrounding the ownership of recordings, have been continually discussed since the turn of the twentieth century as a result of musical piracy (defined as any “unauthorized reproduction” of a piece of recorded music) (5). Cummings explores the role musical piracy—including the copying of out-of-print recordings, popular recordings, unreleased material, concert recordings, sampling, and more—played in the development of copyright law, while teasing out the social and economic issues that led to judicial and congressional decisions on ownership. He argues that copyright laws came to cover more and more cultural products as cultural industries, like American music, overtook manufacturing and agriculture in America’s economy. Protecting these industries and American economic interests, therefore, became a greater priority for the Copyright Act of 1976 than it was for the Copyright Act of 1909.

To contextualize the shift in views of ownership, Cummings focuses on the contradiction between music’s social nature—or listeners’ desires to share music with one another—and the rights of American artists and businesses to recoup profit from their creative works as the primary struggle of this cultural history. For example, how might one legally differentiate between the pirate selling bootlegs for substantial profit, and the music enthusiast taping a concert and providing it to other enthusiasts at cost in an attempt to preserve a historical record of the work [End Page 83] itself (and how could one fairly compensate the recording companies, composers, and artists for these copies)?

Written with both the scholar and lay reader in mind, Cummings provides a strong historical overview (with excellent endnotes) of American copyright law and the judicial decisions affecting and impacting it, beginning with the creation of the Copyright Act of 1909 and concluding with the Copyright Act of 1976. With fabulous attention to detail and clarity, Cummings expertly navigates the social and political forces behind these legislative creations, saying: “copyright, in short, has always been the creature of shifting political interests and cultural aspirations— always incomplete, always subject to change” (3).

The first three chapters are extremely solid, providing the reader with a comprehensive background in the evolution of musical piracy preceding and following the 1909 Copyright Act. Chapter one focuses on the impetus for new copyright laws with the invention of recordable media. Chapters two and three demonstrate how collectors (of jazz recordings, opera recordings, etc.) took advantage of the lack of copyright protection for recording companies and artists to preserve recordings of historical value and share them amongst other...


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pp. 83-85
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