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.

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Comments on “Copyright Finally Getting Around To Destroying Player Piano Music… One Century Late”

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Anonymous Coward says:

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.”

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

mvs says:

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.

Jon (profile) says:


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.

maddog (profile) says:

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.

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