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

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The first book by ToM’s own Alex Cummings, Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright recently dropped from Oxford University Press.  Based on his dissertation at Columbia, the book traces the winding history of technology, property rights, and music since the invention of sound recording in the 1870s.  From sheet music  to piano rolls, and from reel-to-reel tape to CD-burners, new technologies have constantly raised the question of how sound and music ought to be regulated.  Composers didn’t want their songs to be used to make player piano rolls or wax cylinder recordings in the early twentieth century–unless, of course, they were getting paid for the exploitation of their music by the lucrative new “talking machine” industry.  The record companies, on the other hand, wanted to be able to record music freely, while also lobbying Congress for a copyright to protect the unique performances they captured on wax and shellac.

As it turned out, Congress denied labels the right to control their recordings in 1909, leading to decades of confusion over whether anyone really owned a record.  Should the performer hold the right?  Should it be the label, or songwriter, or session musicians who possessed the sounds and vibrations inscribed on vinyl?  Democracy of Sound tells the story of how record collectors, bootleggers, and even the Mafia took advantage of the ambiguity of copyright law to copy, share, and sell records throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1960s.  It features a cast of colorful characters, from the elusive con artist Wynant Van Zandt Pearce Bradley in the 1900s, to Le Pétomane, the French “flatulist” who lit up the stage at the Moulin Rouge, to Rubber Dubber, the outspoken rock bootlegger who espoused a radical crusade to free music from corporate control in the late 1960s.

Ultimately, the book shows how the ever-growing specter of piracy in the 1970s finally prompted the music industry to unite in favor of sound recording copyright, leading to a series of legislative victories that inaugurated a new era of longer, stronger, more restrictive copyright in the late twentieth century.  Yet despite the industry’s apparent political victories fighting piracy at home and around the world, copying and sharing never disappeared–indeed, piracy continues to mutate into new shapes and seeps into new channels in the twenty first century age of social media.  As Democracy of Sound shows, music piracy was the original social media; sound flowed through social networks in the Jazz Age and the Age of Aquarius much as it does today.

Democracy of Sound has received praise from leading figures in the history of media, music, copyright, and American Studies. “Beautifully crafted, intelligently researched, and cogently argued, Democracy of Sound offers readers a compelling analysis of the changing legal status of recorded music in the United States from the 1870s to the present,” Richard R. John, author of Network Nation, says. “Many books have been written about intellectual property; few have done more to make its significance accessible to the general reader. It will appeal not only to specialists in American studies, music, and law, but also to anyone who cares about American popular culture, past and present.”

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Copyrights and Copywrongs, describes the book as “a rare combination of historical vision, musical expertise, and technological sophistication,” while Charles F. McGovern, author of Sold American, says, “Democracy of Sound elegantly and impartially illuminates how Americans made music into a thing, while fighting bitterly over who would gain access to that music.  Anyone with any interest in the future of copyright or in our cultural past should read this important book.”

Democracy of Sound in the Media:

Noah Berlatsky’s review in Reason

Jim Cullen’s review for HNN

Ted Lehmann’s review at Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms

Interview with Larry Mantle: “Does Selling Used Digital Music Equal Piracy?”

Interview with Jeff Schechtman at Specific Gravity

Excerpt at Salon“Forget Copyright! We’ve Always Stolen Music”

Also at Salon“No Pakistanis: The Racial Satire the Beatles Don’t Want You to Hear”

Reviews on Goodreads

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