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date: 01 October 2022

Global Music Piracylocked

Global Music Piracylocked

  • Neil W. PerryNeil W. PerrySchool of Communication, American University
  •  and Aram SinnreichAram SinnreichSchool of Communication, American University


Music has always been a public good, playing a central role in human society. Not merely a source of entertainment, it is also a medium for storytelling, news, and social bonding. Musicians began to professionalize during the Renaissance, and the rise of print publishing contributed to the formation of a nascent music industry. The book industry, which grew in economic and political strength after the widespread adoption of movable type, introduced the idea of legal monopoly—copyright—to reproduce works of authorship. In time, this was adopted by music publishers as well.

In the two centuries since music was first copyrighted, music has become increasingly commoditized, and central to the adoption and sale of new communication technologies. Major technological shifts contributed to new legal and economic paradigms, from the mechanical reproduction of scores in the 19th century to piano rolls and recorded sound at the turn of the 20th century, to radio and television broadcasts a few decades later, to digital recording and network-based peer-to-peer (P2P) distribution at the turn of the present century. Rather than supplanting one another, emerging technologies worked symbiotically with previous ones, expanding the music industry ecology. Throughout this process, copyright law has continued to evolve and expand, serving as a central mechanism for industrial organization and economic exploitation.

In the 1980s, new technologies, practices, and laws created the conditions for radical changes to the music industry. Digitization made music into a highly portable, easily distributable commodity, free from the sonic degradation inherent to copying analog media. Nondestructive editing, high-quality data compression, stable storage, relatively inexpensive production tools, and internet adoption helped to speed the creation and redistribution of digital music. Digital audio strained on the enforcement power of copyright owners; virtually overnight, a medium shaped by highly controlled distribution was recast as one in which control was practically impossible. In short order, the barriers to entry that had fortified the industry titans from competitors and freeloaders were disassembled and the lucrative economic model that had reigned for a century was disrupted. At the same time, new laws and treaties “harmonized” international copyright laws and enforcement—a development that exacerbated the tensions created by new digital communications platforms within media economies.

Central to these disruptions were the commercial and noncommercial “piracy” that challenged copyright authority. Digital audio accelerated a new mode of composition—sampling—which grew rapidly in popularity and seemed tailored to problematize rights holders’ monopolies over recombinant uses of their work. Additionally, internet distribution gave recordings life outside the traditional industry structures. Finally, P2P file sharing enabled redistribution of music with virtually no technological barriers. This transformation coincided with a nosedive in music industry revenue. Despite numerous contributory factors, the industry placed responsibility squarely at the feet of music “piracy,” and spent the next two decades facilitating this narrative through draconian copyright enforcement, mass lawsuits against customers, and lobbying for stronger copyright.


  • Communication and Culture
  • International/Global Communication

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