Who owns music?
Who owns music?


Ownership of music is a legal question, one that is increasingly contentious in a time when cyberspace is challenging copyright laws. It is also an ethical and even philosophical question, which Smithsonian Folkways Recordings must wrestle with as it gathers the music of cultures around the world. Folkways’ D. A. Sonneborn tells stories of the music makers he’s met—including truck drivers in Ghana playing on hubcaps, air pumps, and their trucks’ horns—in a session that considers the idea of ownership in its largest sense.

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Who owns music?Virtual Graphic Facilitation:

This session was illustrated in real time. Click the thumbnail image to the left for an illustrated summary of this session.


As associate director of the Smithsonian’s nonprofit record label and archival audio collection, D.A. Sonneborn, Ph.D., has been executive co-producer of two hundred CDs. His research interests include community cultural representation, best ethical practices in fieldwork, music in Sufism, and intellectual property rights in intangible cultural heritage. Sonneborn belongs to the UNESCO-advisory International Council for Traditional Music and the advisory board of the Al Ain Centre for Music in the World of Islam in Abu Dhabi. He co-authored Planet Drum (Harper San Francisco, 1991), has written new music for theater, film, and dance productions, and has produced traditional world-music concerts and theater festivals.

  1. James Paul Adamson
    10:01 am on April 14th, 2010

    Great question…. I look forward to the answer. :) ‘We often feel sad in the presence of music without words; and often more than that in the presence of music without music.’
    – More Maxims of Mark, Johnson, 1927

    Atesh Sonneborn Reply:

    Anthony Seeger, once director of Smithsonian Folkways and now a professor of ethnomusicology posed the question to me. Thanks for the “More Maxims of Mark” quote/ Perhaps the cognitive experience of sadness in the presence of music without words is a projection, possibly of an emotion hidden from everyday awareness.

  2. Jessi Taylor
    4:01 pm on April 14th, 2010

    This session was great for teachers in that it opened routes of questioning that would be interesting to explore with students. I would love to have access to the transcript.. and the great poster drawn at the end!

    Stevie Engelke Reply:

    Good to hear that you liked both the session and the poster. Having an illustrator join us for this conference gives us a unique way to record and communicate the complex ideas we’re discussing. You’ll be happly to know that the poster will be posted on the conference website within the next couple of days.

  3. Beatriz Lupiano
    4:40 pm on April 14th, 2010

    I enjoyed your session very much. Thank you

    Beatriz (Argentina)

    Atesh Sonneborn Reply:

    It was exciting to see you online from Argentina today. Thanks for your kind words.
    Atesh (USA)

  4. Beatriz Lupiano
    5:36 pm on April 14th, 2010

    I also look forward to seeing the picture made from the music…I wasn’t in the room during the break and I’m very interested in the relationship between sound and image (I’m a foreign language teacher)

    Atesh Sonneborn Reply:

    See Stevie Engelke’s message about the poster above.

  5. AnnaElizabeth Wooten
    9:49 pm on April 15th, 2010

    I used to play someones music that was written by someone else, now when I play I let the piano play for me., it plays the music that is in my heart. it could be things from others, but I just let it go. I love to play my keyboard and it plays beautiful music for me.
    People enjoy my music. it belongs to the world.

    Atesh Sonneborn Reply:

    Many musicians speak of what you speak of, AnnaElizabeth. May I encourage you? Keep on playing the music in your heart and when you can, let others hear it, too. Some will be opened by it, as you have been. (I would not be surprised if Ms. Wooten practiced on the piano for years to get to the point where she could get out of the way and let the music come through her.)

    AnnaElizabeth Wooten Reply:

    I am a brightsoul, I have been playing the piano for a long time. Since I was 5 years old. I am now 68 and I play for the people who live here not their favoites but my pwn xreations., and at chrch someitmes Iplay the piano, or the organ. After reading about BAch, and how he just let the oragan play for him. I was amazed. Try to get a tradtional church orgainist to let you play the church organ at his church he will not let you do it. i had to go out of that type of church and find a more uptodate one. and now they let me play once in awhile. I do not write it down. Bach did not either. People had to write it down for him. I love th black keys more than ever. And findin out B flat was the lowest note in the Universe, also blew my mind. I wanted to play them more than ever. It just flows. I am vibrating with the universe. And it feels good. AnnaElizabeth a brightsoul you can visit me at to read my bio.

    AnnaElizabeth Wooten Reply:

    And thank you for your comment. i appreciate it very much and thank you for inviting me to your class. Anna