Democracy of Sound

Democracy of Sound cover

Out in paperback, Spring 2017!

Democracy of Sound explores the many ways Americans have produced (and reproduced) music from the wax cylinder era of the 1890s to the age of the mp3. It reveals how policymakers justified sweeping property rights that favored entertainment and high-tech interests over consumers and the public domain by the end of the twentieth century. In the Progressive Era, lawmakers were reluctant to expand the “monopoly” power of copyright and declined to extend protection to sound recordings; in their view, free competition and public access to culture trumped the importance of rights held by artists, publishers, and record labels. Democracy of Sound follows the record collectors, New Left radicals, and mere opportunists who took advantage of this gap in the law to copy and circulate sound recordings, ultimately provoking the courts and Congress to devise new rationales for protecting music from unauthorized reproduction in the 1960s. The result was a robust expansion of property rights; as the US shed factory jobs and Hollywood and Silicon Valley lobbied for influence, policymakers came to believe that protecting information was the surest path to economic growth. Piracy continued in the face of new legal restrictions, though, and a movement to curb intellectual property began to take shape by the 1990s.

“This book is for music lovers and those of a certain age who remember artists from the Jazz and Rock days of the 1960s when tape recorders and vinyl were in place and bootlegged recordings of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin were the in-thing to have. You can see how [Cummings] has enjoyed researching the detailed background of music piracy which makes this book a jolly good read providing the history of music piracy from the late 19th century onwards.” —Entertainment Law Review

“Offers a detailed narrative account of how [copyright] issues became so complicated – and how, in the face of corporate pressure, they’re becoming brutally simpleEL Cummings has provided a usable, musical past.” –Jim Cullen, History News Network

“Valuable… Cummings’ book makes clear that piracy will continue, and that that is far from being a bad thing.” —Reason

“From Supreme Court battles over player piano rolls to the music industry’s $75 trillion lawsuit against Limewire, Democracy of Sound shows how we arrived at today’s debates about music ownership and piracy. Cummings is not only a skilled historian, but also a lively story-teller who can explain complex copyright issues with admirable clarity. For anyone with an opinion about the politics, economics, and ethics of music copying, this book offers essential perspective.” –David Suisman, author of Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music

“Piracy may be the dominant issue troubling musicians and the culture industries today, but as Alex Cummings shows, struggles over appropriation, sharing, and theft have long shaped the entire history of recorded sound and the music business. Combining legal, cultural, and business history, 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.” –Charles F. McGovern, author of Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945

“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. 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.” –Richard John, author of Network Nation

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