Copyright Finally Getting Around To Destroying Player Piano Music... One Century Late

from the bye-bye-culture dept

If you're a student of copyright history, you know that the 1909 Copyright Act in the US was driven in large part due to fear over a new-fangled technology that was going to make copying music so easy that musicians wouldn't be able to make any money any more. Yes, that's right, that dastardly player piano, with its automated paper piano rolls that could play songs without musicians. The fear was so great that lots of lobbying was done of Congress, leading to the 1909 Copyright Act, which brought about compulsory licensing on mechanical rights. Of course, within about a decade, the infatuation with the player piano was gone, but compulsory mechanical rights were stuck in US law and no one ever thought to question if they were really needed.

I'm reminded of this bit of history thanks to this story, brought to my attention by Glyn Moody, about how Jon "Maddog" Hall wanted to try to preserve some deteriorating piano rolls, but discovered (much to his annoyance) that copyright may be getting in the way. He points out that many old player piano rolls are deteriorating, and the small group of remaining collectors are hoping to preserve the music by digitizing them. Easier said than done... turns out that Hall got confused about the difference between the copyright on the composition and the copyright on the performance, and his attempt to save a more modern recording of a public domain song -- even though that piano roll was deteriorating -- was not allowed. After contacting one company that still makes piano rolls, he was told that he was better off not preserving the rolls in his collection:
We ended up agreeing that if I made an mp3 recording of less than 30 seconds, off an old roll, from a company that was completely out of business, kept it completely for my own use and locked up so no one else could hear it, that I probably would not be sued. He also begged me not to use any of his company rolls in this task, as he really did not want to have to sue me. I thanked him for his time.
It only took 100 years, but it looks like copyright law in the US is finally doing what it originally intended to do: destroying piano rolls.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    The Infamous Joe (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 12:00pm

    So.

    So, in about 100 years we can expect p2p file sharing to finally be stopped?

    I can't wait for the lobbying efforts against brain-to-brain neural transfers of data, myself.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Richard (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 12:11pm

    Ridiculous US Sound copyright

    If you come to Europe you can probably do it since sound copyright currently only lasts 50 years - do any roll from before 1960 is fine if the underlying music is public domain.

    Then again I fail to see how the copyright holder benefits if the outcome is that all copies of the work are lost....

     

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  3.  
    identicon
    Adrian Lopez, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 12:18pm

    He should copy them anyway but keep them private. It's no different than making a backup copy of software you've paid for.

     

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  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 12:20pm

    A hundred years from this day, when the computer networks are silent after the Greatest War, the RIAA can finally say that it won against the file sharers. If they're still alive by then.

     

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  5.  
    identicon
    DH's Love Child, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 12:20pm

    US Copyright

    Preserving culture 1 piano roll at a time. wait a minute...

     

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  6.  
    identicon
    P, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 12:24pm

    Re: So.

    Ya know Joe... I was thinking the same thing.

     

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  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 12:30pm

    Re: Ridiculous US Sound copyright

    It prevents previous works from competing with newer works. This restriction on competition does benefit someone and those who benefit are responsible for the currently ridiculous laws.

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 12:33pm

    Whatever. Send them to me, along with instructions and gear for scanning them, and I'll take care of it and deal with the asshat lawyers.

     

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  9.  
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    :Lobo Santo (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 12:35pm

    Re: Re: Ridiculous US Sound copyright

    Yes, I'm sure all those piano-roll magnates are pleased...

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 12:36pm

    Re: So.

    We need to start a lobbying effort to ban lobbying.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    icon
    :Lobo Santo (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 12:44pm

    Re: Re: So.

    While we're dreaming, let's start another one for short (like, 1 page), concise laws written in plain English with intent clearly started.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    icon
    The Infamous Joe (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 1:02pm

    Re: Re: Re: So.

    Shit, I'd be happy if laws could be written in c++.

     

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  13.  
    identicon
    RadialSkid, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 1:09pm

    New rule: Copyright can not last longer than paper.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    :Lobo Santo (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 1:10pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: So.

    Me too. But it'll never happen--because then they'd have to make logical sense. Seriously, most laws today would seg-fault.

    (And the legal system as an OS would not run.)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    TAMbot, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 1:18pm

    Proving my point

    Why should people benefit for free from the hard work of the creators without paying for it? The fact that this freeloader just wants to mooch off of others is a perfectly reasonable example of why we need to extend copyright further to avoid these kinds of problems.

     

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  16.  
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    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 1:19pm

    Re:

    You must be new here.

    http://techdirt.com/articles/20100303/1638438400.shtml
    http://techdirt.com/articles/201005 11/0657169375.shtml

    Backup copies are frequently ruled as illegal, even if for personal use, even if obscene safeguards are put in place to prevent them being distributed.

     

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  17.  
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    :Lobo Santo (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 1:20pm

    Re: Proving my point

    LOL!

    I'm sure the dead guys/gals who created these works don't mind.

     

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  18.  
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    interval (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 1:29pm

    Piano Roll Music

    Amongst my jazz music collection I have a cd of Jelly Roll Morton music that was set on piano rolls. Apparently Mr. Jelly Lord sat down and recorded a bunch of his pieces to piano roll. The music is classic and simply wonderful. How much duller the world would be if we never got to hear that wonderful music.

     

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  19.  
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    Free Capitalist (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 1:31pm

    Re: Re: Re: So.

    concise laws written in plain English with intent clearly started.

    We tried that with the U.S. Constitution release version 1.0. Turns out the lawyers filed suit for discrimination.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 4:08pm

    Re: Re: Re: So.

    The constitution said that copyrights/patents/monopolies are intended to promote the progress. Look how far that got.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 4:29pm

    100 Years

    100 years later? Evil never gives up, does it?

     

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  22.  
    identicon
    anon, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 5:16pm

    limited time

    copyright law is mentioned in the constitution but it also says for limited time. Well, there's probably nothing in my lifetime that will become public - some limits on time, huh?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
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    zcat (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 5:43pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: So.

    How about if Laws were developed through the same open and collaborative process that's worked so well for developing Linux, Firefox and OpenOffice?

    http://www.usnowfilm.com/

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
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    BearGriz72 (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 6:51pm

    Re: Re:

    "Backup copies are frequently ruled as illegal, even if for personal use, even if obscene safeguards are put in place to prevent them being distributed."

    Does not make it right, just means the courts screwed the pooch again.

    Hopefully the courts are finally growing a brain on how screwed up The DMCA really is.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
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    TtfnJohn (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 7:36pm

    Re: Be careful what you wish for

    High quality paper can (and does) last for centuries.

     

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  26.  
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    TtfnJohn (profile), Jul 26th, 2010 @ 7:38pm

    Re: 100 Years

    Stupidity endures after evil has given up and gone home for supper.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 26th, 2010 @ 8:42pm

    Oh well...

    This kind of thing is why some people say "screw that" and start copying everything with abandon.

    Because once a law has gone so far as to prohibit even what is obviously the morally correct thing to do, some people will perceive it as completely broken, and as something which should be ignored. Not only that, some people will feel that it should be openly defied. These people will respect the law in question only so far as to allow them to defy it even more (for instance, respecting it only enough to avoid being arrested, because being arrested would make it harder to defy it).

    This means that, paradoxically, making a law stronger in theory can make it weaker in practice.

    Or, as popular culture would put it, "The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    identicon
    illness, Jul 27th, 2010 @ 12:14am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: So.

    No way, this would lead to laws people could actually understand and test. Think about the unemployed lawyers, judges and policy makers.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 27th, 2010 @ 12:36am

    We ended up agreeing that

    Agreement of two individuals on a dubious interpretation of the law does not make that interpretation true.

    ...if I made an mp3 recording of less than 30 seconds, off an old roll, from a company that was completely out of business, kept it completely for my own use and locked up so no one else could hear it, that I probably would not be sued.

    If he did that, and he never told anybody about it, and didn't advertise it, then how in the world would he be sued?

    Unfortunately, no interpretation of ANY civil law can give you absolute safety against being sued. I am, right here as I sit, under the constant threat that my rich neighbor will sue me for broadcasting evil tinfoil-hat-penetrating radio waves through his carefully designed helmet and into his brain for the purpose of damaging his libido. CONSTANT THREAT! What, then, does "maddog" Hall want? Indemnification of the sort he desires is available to no man.

    Additionally, is his interest here preservation, or dissemination? Either way, someone who is "a Free Software person and a follower of the issues around copyright" would certainly be intimately familiar with section 108 of copyright law, which contains specific exemptions specifically for preservation in cases like this. Funny he doesn't mention it. It's a convenient section to omit or forget about when you want to make arguments that copyright is responsible for the destruction of culture.

    Now this section allows things that are a little different than maddog would like: he would not, under section 108, be able to distribute the work far and wide on the Internet (as he wants to).

    However, he is neither allowed to keep it solely for himself and his private enjoyment: he can make a copy for lending and three for preservation, provided the lending copy is made available to the public or researchers in general. If he did not want to operate as an archive (making the lending copy available himself), he could have partnered with a librarian or archivist. Having known several librarians, and dated one, I can tell you that it should not be difficult to find an archivist or librarian willing to partner on an issue of preservation of knowledge that would otherwise be lost.

     

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  30.  
    identicon
    mvs, Jul 27th, 2010 @ 1:30am

    Just do it...

    Dude, just copy the rolls and let someone sue. Defend yourself by saying you were doing historic preservation. By the time the lawsuits start and settle, the mp3s of the recordings will be so widespread no one will be able to stop it. If the goal is to preserve the rolls, then preserve the rolls. The legality can be sorted out later. 10 bucks says a lawyer will take the case pro bono.

     

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  31.  
    identicon
    Syd Polk, Jul 27th, 2010 @ 10:12am

    Copyrights expire...

    Don't copyrights expire after 100 years?

     

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  32.  
    identicon
    Qwwes, Jul 27th, 2010 @ 10:58am

    Hmm article started off interesting, but relaying the dumb confusion of piano roll people instead of correcting them is jut annoying. This article is full of errors in interpretation of law.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33.  
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    nasch (profile), Jul 27th, 2010 @ 12:02pm

    Have to sue??

    He also begged me not to use any of his company rolls in this task, as he really did not want to have to sue me.

    What the hell is wrong with this person?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34.  
    identicon
    Jon, May 15th, 2012 @ 1:58pm

    Re:

    This story was taken from my blog, which had much more background information in it than has been presented here.

    People in my club (not me) were recording the music that they thought was long out of copyright, but due to the various copyright laws that apply are still in copyright.

    Secondly, these people *were* putting the music up on the Internet for people to hear. It was not "archival".

    Finally, I write my articles with a bit of (sometimes black) humor, so if you are not used to my writing (and particularly when it is taken out of context) you may get the wrong impression of what I am trying to say.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  
    icon
    maddog (profile), May 15th, 2012 @ 2:36pm

    Re: What did I want?

    If Anonymous Coward had taken the time to carefully read my article, then he or she would have known that I was writing about the practice of people in my Player Piano group putting their entire collections of music up on the web as mp3s.

    At first I thought this was a great idea, allowing other people to hear this great music, and particularly since most of the rolls are "old", and falling apart.

    However, under US law putting the rolls up on the Internet is not an "archival purpose", and the point of the article was to show that even an old song "Greensleeves" has several layers of copyright attached to it that keep it "in copyright".

    Since I have been (unfortunately) working with copyright law for close to thirty years, I am "intimately familiar with section 108 of copyright law", but since that section does not apply AT ALL to this situation, my argument of using less than 30 seconds of a three or four minute song would probably fall more under section 107 of US copyright law, that of "fair use", particularly the sections on the amount of material copied (a small portion of the work), the effect on the potential value of the copied work (probably would increase the value, if anything), and the non-profit educational value (which was the intent of my fellow members in the first place).

    So despite the fact of having dated a librarian, most of Anonymous Cowards' long diatribe was simply wrong.

    The rest of the comments here are typically because these people do not read my column regularly (to know that I often write with sarcasm) and particularly did not read this specific article nor the comments that happened on that site.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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