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Between the Progressive Era and World War II, African American jazz music became the source of big profits for some white entrepreneurs in the United States. The encounter between whites and jazz was both a propertization and a privatization of African American group resources. While new technologies of recording and radio broadcasting were critical factors facilitating these cultural enclosures, the sine qua non was the embeddedness of American intellectual property law in the logic of white supremacy. In this paper, I focus on the popular jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman, best known to most contemporary legal scholars as the defendant in the precedent-setting copyright case RCA v. Whiteman (1940). I read RCA v. Whiteman as a symptomatic text that speaks to the power and purchase of a very real species of property rights for whites only: what we might call, after Cheryl Harris, whiteness as intellectual property. I examine the history of RCA v. Whiteman and the discourses in which it was grounded both through traditional archival research and by looking at artistic and popular culture representations of Whiteman’s copyright politics, such as Langston Hughes’s poem “White Man” (1936), and William Dieterle’s film Syncopation (1942).


2010 Law and Humanities Junior Scholar Workshop selection.