Steal This Music
How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity

Joanna Demers
Foreword by Rosemary Coombe

Creativity v. the law


"Although there is a growing body of literature on copyright and culture, no book takes quite the same tack as Steal This Music. This is the first book to gather a broad range of research about copyright and music. Demers has written a valuable and necessary book in a clear, coherent, and highly readable style that a general audience interested in music will appreciate."
—Kembrew McLeod, author of Freedom of Expression®: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity

"In an age where we take so much for granted—our rights to know about spyware, our right to know about how we can or cannot share memories and exchange files—this book is a primer for those who are more than curious about the rapidly changing landscape of American copyright law. In the same vein as Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture and Siva Vaidhyanathan's Anarchist in the Library, Joana Demers's Steal this Music gives us more tools to take apart the all too confusing landscape of modern copyright law. It's a clear and concise history of the rights and wrongs of copyright in an age when it's getting harder and harder to tell where the line is between the need to control how materials are distributed in a world of networks, and the natural inclination we all have to SHARE!!! This book is a timely wake up call that these things are all blurring more rapidly than many of us suspect."
—Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, author of Rhythm Science

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Is music property? Under what circumstances can music be stolen? Such questions lie at the heart of Joanna Demers’s timely look at how overzealous intellectual property (IP) litigation both stifles and stimulates musical creativity. A musicologist, industry consultant, and musician, Demers dissects works that have brought IP issues into the mainstream culture, such as DJ Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” and Mike Batt’s homage-gone-wrong to John Cage’s silent composition “4’33.” Demers also discusses such artists as Ice Cube, DJ Spooky, and John Oswald, whose creativity is sparked by their defiant circumvention of licensing and copyright issues.

Demers is concerned about the fate of transformative appropriation—the creative process by which artists and composers borrow from, and respond to, other musical works. In the United States, only two elements of music are eligible for copyright protection: the master recording and the composition (lyrics and melody) itself. Harmony, rhythm, timbre, and other qualities that make a piece distinctive are virtually unregulated. This two-tiered system had long facilitated transformative appropriation while prohibiting blatant forms of theft. The advent of digital file sharing and the specter of global piracy changed everything, says Demers. Now, record labels and publishers are broadening the scope of IP “infringement” to include allusive borrowing in all forms: sampling, celebrity impersonation—even Girl Scout campfire sing-alongs.

Paying exorbitant licensing fees or risking even harsher penalties for unauthorized borrowing have become the only options for some musicians. Others, however, creatively sidestep not only the law but also the very infrastructure of the music industry. Moving easily between techno and classical, between corporate boardrooms and basement recording studios, Demers gives us new ways to look at the tension between IP law, musical meaning and appropriation, and artistic freedom.

Page count: 192 pp.
3 b&w photos, 1 table
Trim size: 5.5 x 8.5


List price: $23.95

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Joanna Demers is an assistant professor of music history and literature at the University of Southern California, where she teaches on twentieth-century concert and popular music. Her work has appeared in Popular Music and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also freelance forensic musicologist and consultant on music copyright.