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.