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Ed Linenthal
Journal of American History

Last modified: Wednesday, January 19, 2011

History journal explores music piracy, cultural impact of popular music, lynching, incarceration

Jan. 19, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Modern-day discussions of music piracy typically focus on the sharing of digital music files over the Internet, an act that's acknowledged to be illegal as well as common. But as Alex S. Cummings writes in the latest Journal of American History, the idea that recording companies "own" the music they produce is a recent development, worked out through 20th century lawsuits and legislation.

Lawmakers in the Progressive Era denied copyright protection for sound recordings, leaving pirates to challenge American sensibilities about monopoly, music and the public interest. Eventually, a conception emerged of copyright as a safeguard for capital investment rather than what Cummings calls "the romantic invocation of authorship."

JAH December 2010

The Journal of American History features cover art for an early 1950s bootleg record by Benny Goodman and his quartet. An article in the journal examines how recording companies battled to gain copyright protections through most of the 20th century.

As new technology, such as cheap cassette tapes, made it easier to copy and share music, courts and lawmakers shifted to favoring property rights over the free exchange of goods and information. "Music offers a key barometer of changing attitudes toward property rights, as song and sound have sparked legal wrangling from the days of the cylinder to the era of the mix-tape," writes Cummings, assistant professor of history at Georgia State University.

The quarterly Journal of American History is published at Indiana University Bloomington by the Organization of American Historians. Other articles in the December 2010 issue:

  • Michael J. Pfeifer of City University of New York examines lynching in the North during the Civil War. Focusing on incidents in Wisconsin and New York, he explores the pivotal role of Irish Catholic solidarity and argues that the practice and ideology of the Northern Irish paralleled and slightly anticipated that of white Southerners who later employed lynching.
  • Melissa R. Klapper of Rowan University traces the social activism of American Jewish women in the peace movement between the world wars. She writes that, facing Nazism abroad and anti-Semitism at home, activists redirected their ideals toward Jewish identity rather than sisterhood and peace.
  • Judy Kutulas of St. Olaf College examines how the sexual revolution, women's movement and counterculture found their way into Americans' daily lives through 1970s popular music, which spoke to youthful trendsetters and helped legitimate relationships, rather than marriage, as the goal of heterosexual interactions.
  • Heather Ann Thompson of Temple University argues that an examination of incarceration practices in late 20th century America is crucial if scholars are to understand such developments as the origins of the urban crisis, the decline of the labor movement and the rise of the political right.

In the JAH Podcast, associate editor Khalil G. Muhammad speaks with Thompson about her article, "Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History." Muhammad is an assistant professor of history at IU Bloomington and the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.

For more information and links to full-text articles and the podcast, see