1906 __ Recorded sound copyrightable ?
‣ Comment : In the context of congressional hearings in 1906 and 1908 on the question of whether recorded sound was copyrightable, Frank L. Dyer, Edison’s patent attorney, CEO, and sometime biographer, testified that recordings were not copies of “writings” because they were not legible. To support this claim he recounted how Edison had attempted in vain to make the phonograph records readable through the following laboratory strategy: having made a recording of the letter a,“he examined with a microscope each particular indentation and made a drawing of it, so that at the end of two or three days he had what he thought was a picture of the letter ‘a.’” But when he compared different recordings of the same letter it became clear that the “two pictures were absolutely dissimilar.” This spurious confusion of the status of alphabetical and phonological signifiers (the two recordings of the letter aare different because they record both the letter and its pronunciation). — which seems suspiciously convenient in this economico-juridical context. — does not arise in a similar debate that took place in the German court system the same year, concerning the status of recordings of Polish songs that glorified the independence struggles of the previous century. After a series of earlier decisions pro and contra, the high court decided unambiguously that these gramophonic inscriptions were indeed writing and could thus be prosecuted under paragraph 41 of the criminal code that governs illegal “writings, depictions or representations”: “The question as to whether the impressions on the records and cylinders are to be considered as written signs according to paragraph 41 of the State Legal Code must be answered in the affirmative. The sounds of the human voice are captured by the phonograph in the same fashion as they are by alphabetic writing. Both are an incorporation of the content of thought and it makes no difference that the alphabetic writing conveys this content by means of the eye while the phonograph conveys it by means of the ear since the system of writing for the blind, which conveys the content by means of touch, is a form of writing in the sense of paragraph 41.” (“Die Sprechmaschinenschrift und die bestehenden Gesetze,” Phonographische Zeitschrift7, no. 9 (1906): 198.) Given that the definition of writing invoked in this decision is strictly a functional one (phonographic traces are writing because they function as a medium that stores and transmits language), what remains unexamined here is the specificity of these almost invisible scribbles as inscriptions. Like most end users, the court was more concerned with what the speaking machines produced, but not how they did so. This latter question did however become an issue, although in an entirely different field of research. — phonetics. — whose foundational text is Alexander Melville Bell’s 1867 opus entitled, appropriately, Visible Speech. (Thomas Y. Levin)
‣ Source : Levin, Thomas Y. (2002), ““Tones from out of Nowhere”: Rudolph Pfenninger and the Archaeology of Synthetic Sound”, Grey Room 12, Summer 2003, Grey Room, Inc. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pp. 32–79.; “’Töne aus dem Nichts’. Rudolf Pfenninger und die Archäologie des synthetischen Tons”, In Friedrich Kittler, Thomas Macho and Sigrid Weigel, Eds., “Zwischen Rauschen und Offenbarung: Zur Kultur- und Medien-geschichte der Stimme”, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2002, pp. 313-355; In “New media, old media: a history and theory reader”, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Thomas Keenan (Eds), Routledge, 2006, p. 52.
‣ Urls : http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/LevinPfen.pdf (last visited )
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