Thursday, June 29, 2017
Book Review: 'Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century' by Alex Sayf Cummings
Review by David Wineberg
The story of music copyright is a subset of the story of the total disregard for intellectual property rights in the USA. This is explored to the fullest in the Smuggler Nation. Music copyright has its own twisted story, but the model fits right in, and is an important aspect of the sordid history of appropriation in the USA. As America grew, smuggling, piracy and copying was not merely ignored, it was actively encouraged - right in the highest levels of government, the office of the president. The nation built it into its genes. With books, for example, there was 25% tariff to help keep imported books out, and since foreigners were also not allowed to hold US copyrights, American publishers simply bought one copy and reset it for sale in the USA. Bravo.
Then, the pendulum swung from that extreme to the other, as the USA became the most lawbound, locked up copyright haven in the world. This is now the land where Brownies get busted for singing Happy Birthday at a beach bonfire in California. And where the record companies got together to sue limewire.com for $75 Trillion, supposedly representing the losses they somehow suffered over Limewire's brief time online, although it would appear to be more money than there has ever been in the whole world in all of history. But US copyright law is now on the publishers' side.
When electronics permitted the democratization of music, the ownership of it suddenly became an issue. Even when the laws changed to finally permit such ownership rights, the police had to be taught and convinced it was even worth pursuing, because until 1971, it was normal. Major record companies accelerated the push, pleading horrific hardship at the hands of bootleggers who were able to sell a few hundred copies. With every change in their direction, the companies promised lower prices would result from tighter protection from pirates. And of course, with every increment of tighter protection for them, the record companies raised prices - and came back for more. It's the same story in patents, where the promise of uninhibited innovation has led instead to massive lawsuits, and the total inability to build upon previous innovation - a stifling of creativity.
What is most interesting is the rationale used by the copiers and the bootleggers and the pirates. They claimed music wants to be free, that it is part of our heritage, that it belongs to everybody, that everyone has the right to appreciate rare recordings of long gone artists, and of every variation that occurs in every live performance. This should all sound very familiar, because it is precisely the argument we see today in reference to information on the internet. And if Congress continues to be as subservient to giant corporations as it was and seems to be, there is little hope of the internet surviving in its current form. For that alone, this book merits a read.
I would have liked Democracy in Sound to be a little more colorful. Cummings could have interviewed some of the characters - the pirates, the publishers, the artists - that it portrays. The straight history of it all gets dry in places. But the importance of it all in the scheme of things,is hugely important to the way the country works, and its future or downfall.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.