August 10, 2005

Music and Copyright (Second Edition).  Edited by Simon Frith and Lee Marshall.  New York: Routledge, 2004.  Index.  ISBN 0-415-97253-1.  $24.95 (paperback).

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Music and Copyright is a collection of eleven essays on various aspects of copyright as it relates to music and recordings.  The coverage is international, as are the contributors, giving the reader a world view of modern copyright and its impact on creativity and distribution.  This is perhaps appropriate as copyright laws have become increasingly standardized internationally through a web of “intellectual property” treaties and agreements.

Chapter one addresses this internationalization.  The first edition of the book (in 1993) was organized by country, but this one has been arranged thematically because, as the editors point out, ”developments within media industries over the last twenty to thirty years have resulted in increasingly transnational legal structures; local actors now find themselves in very similar situations.”  What happens in the United States is very much affected by deliberations in Rome or Geneva, and can only be understood in terms of the operation of multinational corporations.  Subsequent chapters deal with such discrete subjects as the history of copyright; the economic theory behind copyright (Adam Smith was against copyright); the political forces that led to international agreements; how the music industry uses copyright in practice (threats and intimidation seem to be as important as direct legal action); composers and copyright; performers and copyright; the impact of copyright on creativity (stifling some forms, encouraging others); copyright and traditional or folk music; how rights impact different media; and different types of infringers, innocent and deliberate.  The last chapter points out how the expansion of copyright protection has converted once-innocent (and often desirable) uses of creative material into “infringement,” and how even the language describing such uses has been altered by the content industries to justify their ends.  Practically every activity that does not result in direct payment to a rights holder is now branded “piracy” or “theft, plain and simple.”  The public domain is clearly under assault.  (As I have noted elsewhere, what we are really seeing here may not be “copyright theft” but “theft by copyright.”)

Most of the chapters are analytic rather than polemic, although the editors do note that they were surprised that the essays, submitted by experts from different countries and different disciplines, expressed a recurring skepticism about the benefits of copyright as it is presently structured.  Some of the complaints are in conflict with each other; for example creators feel constrained by copyright’s growing strictures, but an ethnomusicologist argues that the musical creations of native tribes (those that do not have lawyers) are not protected well enough.  Larger social issues are also alluded to, for example the use of rights as a means by which richer countries exploit poorer ones (modern “economic imperialism”).  But the general theme is one familiar in almost all modern writing on copyright, that it has shifted the balance of power dramatically from users to rights holders (who are generally intermediaries and not the creators), and that in so doing it has actually become a disincentive to creativity (page 211).

The editors conclude the book with two possible scenarios for the future: “Copyright Totalitarianism” in which rights holders own, charge for, and most ominously require permission for (i.e., control) the use of just about everything; and “Copyright Anarchy,” in which the rules collapse under assault from new technologies that make it impossible to trace and control usage, and music itself recedes as a part of our daily life because no one can make a living at it.  Reality will probably be somewhere in between these two extremes, but the editors conclude that it will not be as dire as some predict.  Their reasoning is that any copyright regime will stay in place only for as long as it remains economically effective, and that if ever more restrictive laws are ignored or undermined because they are perceived as fundamentally unfair they, and the music business, will eventually change.  “What is at stake here (for the industry) is profit rather than principle.”  I hope they’re right.

Music and Copyright is accessibly written and not overly technical, although it does assume a basic knowledge of and interest in the subject.  It is probably not best used as an introduction to copyright for the novice (for that try something like Copyrights and Copywrongs, reviewed here previously).  However it is an excellent guide to structured thinking about copyright from the point of view of different disciplines and different interest groups, and would serve well as an academic course reference.


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