Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Democracy of Sound by Alex Sayf Cummings - Book Review

The Democracy of Sound: Music, Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century Century by Alex Sayf Cummings (Oxford University Press, 2013, 272 Pages, $29.95) makes a persuasive argument for the positive elements gained from bootlegging and even piracy in democratizing the distribution of recorded sound, particularly music, to the broader world created by the creation of new technologies and its spread worldwide. In a book based on his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, Cummings examines the history of copyright law back almost to Gutenburg, with emphasis on the legal precedents in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the effects from the rise of new media and popular culture through the influence of the counterculture, Deadheads and Hip Hop, and the globalization of piracy. Much of the text is critical of court support for establishment capital and organizations against the urge to democratize sound, but is always balanced and scholarly in its discussion of the role of the courts and business interests. The book is remarkably free of cant and extreme rhetoric in its exploration of this explosive topic.

One of the main issues that emerges in this cleanly written text, is the difference between the interests of the companies who reproduce and distribute music and those individuals and groups who compose and perform it. This struggle has persisted from the time sound was first recorded on foil and in piano rolls in the nineteenth century through wax cylindars, 78 rpm records, LP records, wire and tape recording, CD, and various schemes of digital recording and distribution. At every technological advance, there have been those who wish to reproduce the sounds and distribute them for artistic and commercial purposes. The major differntiation between piracy and bootlegging lies in the profit motive of the former. Earliest bootleggers collected and traded elusive copies of early jazz and blues performances to other collectors, archivists, or curators wishing to save and distribute these recordings to others of the same bent. These were usually recordings that record companies did not find financially rewarding. The invention of wire and then tape recordings made it possible for such people to record entire operas from the Texaco Opera, a popular feature in New York radio offered on Saturday afternoons (remember Milton Cross?). They filled an important gap for grand opera fans until recording companies found it profitable to make and distribute opera recordings, an event that required LP, and later CD, recording.

On the other hand, pirates, who have been around for quite a while themselves, operate under a different set of rules and motivations. Typically, a pirate would remake masters in order to press cheaper editions of hit music or repackage it to produce “all-star” or “hits” recordings to bypass the recording company practice (especially after the introduction of long playing and then compact disk recording) of producing one or two hit songs in the company of eight or ten lesser songs to fill out a product, even though customers were only interested in owning the hits. Such, usually illegal, reproduction was done entirely for profit, which was possible for pirates who didn't bear the expense of producing recordings or the losses incurred because an estimated ninety percent of all recordings don't sell enough to recoup their costs. Depending upon the time period and the state of the industry, pirates have either been relentlessly pursued or quietly ignored.

Since the invention of the printing press made the transcription and reproduction of music possible, changing it from pure sound into a written medium, copying of music has been a problem and a boon to musicians and composers. After each technological change in music transcription, the courts have made it esier to copyright works, extended the length of copyright protection, and strengthened the recording industry's hold and control of the composers and performers who make the music, always arguing that it was they who took the risk. Cummings writes, “Piracy and home recording are the new frontiers of the production of music, harnessing technology and labor to make more music.” He also argues that the effect has been to make music more available to those of limited means who cannot afford corporate reproductions or who live in the developing world not served by these companies, thus enhancing the distribution of musical works. “Piracy filled the cracks between official supply and real demand” on a worldwide basis.

The unofficial release and distribution of a bootleg recording of Bob Dylan's unreleased cuts in 1969 called The Great White Wonder (GWW) was the first rock bootleg release, and became a huge hit and an avidly sought after collectible for Dylan and rock fans. Compiled from a number of sources, it is now a collector's classic. The Grateful Dead also represent an important milepost in the history of bootleg recordings, since they encouraged recording of entire concerts, which were later reproduced and distributed widely. They also retained an archive of high quality recordings of these same events which are now being released in small batches by the current legal entity representing the band. A third major element in the contemporary spread of bootlegging/pirating has been Hip Hop music, much of which originated in urban clubs where DJ's mixed cuts from a range of contemporary and historic recordings into a highly listenable and danceable format. These mixes were later released as recordings, serving the purpose of distributing the work of emerging rappers. Recording companies soon found this market irresistable and tried to limit its to the distribution of live mixes.

Cummings details the development of copyright law from the late nineteenth century until the present. Early copyright battles concerned the machine on which recordings were made. Copyright law developed, always somewhat behind the development of technology, and almost always to the benefit of the corporations over the artists and composers. ASCAP and BMI were founded to regulate the use of music in restaurants, bars, and stores, only including radio in 1917. The advent of digital distribution of sound over the Internet has only complicated distribution of royalties, with artists coming in on the low end of the scale. The history of the development of copyright law is long, complicated, and essential reading for anyone wishing to gain a thorough understanding of the current confused state of affairs in the recording industry. 

Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is a historian of law, media, and the American landscape. His work examines how the ideological transition to an “information society” reshaped American political culture and economic policy, as well as the built environment. He received his BA (2003) from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and PhD (2009) from Columbia University, studying with Elizabeth Blackmar and Barbara Fields. His first book, a history of music piracy and intellectual property law in the United States, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He has been the recipient of the Torbet Prize, a Whiting Fellowship, and, most recently, a postdoctoral fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.

Alex Sayf Cummings has written a controversial and arresting book presenting the arguments for and against restrictions on reproduction and distribution of the work of artists and composers outside the established norms of established patent and copyright in the most highly developed nations. He concludes, “When an individual or corporation's right to maximize profit becomes the only goal of public policy, any stake of the broader community in the vast store of human creativity, whether music, art, writing, or technology, disappears from view.” He argues his case strongly and persuasively, supported by careful scholarship and broad references. Agree or disagree, this book deserves attention. The Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyright in the Twentieth Century by Alex Sayf Cummings is published by Oxford University Press (2013, 272 pages, $29.95). I received the book as a digital download from the publisher through Edelweiss.