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Book Review: Unfair to Genius, by Gary A. Rosen
Did Cole Porter steal the music for some of his most popular songs? Ira B. Arnstein thought so. He took Porter, and several other songwriters, to court for copyright infringement during the 1930s and 1940s.
Unfair to Genius: The Strange and Litigious Career of Ira B. Arnstein, by Gary A. Rosen
"Tin Pan Alley" wasn't located too far from where SIBL and a few other NYPL branches are today. But its songs are a world away from contemporary popular music; though as author Gary A. Rosen makes clear there will always be copyright controversies over music, whether yesterday's or today's. With composer/songwriter Ira B. Arnstein as his mcguffin, Rosen weaves a tale of the controversies of earlier times surrounding Broadway shows, hit songs, music recordings and radio. A host of personalities parade through these pages: Composer/Songwriters Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and others; Vaudeville Cantors Josef "Yossele" Rosenblatt and William "Wee Willie" Robyn; Judges Learned Hand and Roger B. Taney; Publishers Edward B. Marks and Max Dreyfus; Radio personalities Sigmund Spaeth (the "Tune Detective") and Oscar Levant ("Information, Please!"); Performance organization rivals ASCAP and BMI. And more!
As the book progresses, Arnstein appears more and more pathetic - a serial litigator who lost all his cases. Although a musician and composer of some renown in his earlier days, he ended up a sorry character trying to vindicate his talent and genius in the law courts; a tragic and ultimately futile gesture. Along the way, some copyright precedent was established (though perhaps not as dramatically as the marketing of this book would lead us to believe). And, unwittingly, it was in the courts that Professor Arnstein gave his best performances.
The verdict: A good read — an opportunity to learn about the struggles of the music publishing industry and other participants in the entertainment industries as they try to deal with rapidly changing technologies, and the accompanying legal and economic issues no one anticipated. One highlight is the tale of the struggles of the performance rights organization ASCAP, its confrontation with the radio networks and the networks' creature, ASCAP's rival, BMI. These stories are told with a satisfactory number of tantalizing gossipy asides, concerning both the show-biz personalities and the legal eagles on either side of the courtroom bench.