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.
People who want to preserve older materials from degradation are prevented by the very process that is supposed to allow them to actually be part of the public space – copyright. A purpose of copyright is to encourage artists to release their works for others to enjoy while getting some financial recompense for a limited time.
But now we have items that are close to a century old that may not be saved by anyone because of copyright. Does that make sense at all? How is 80-100 years for something that can no longer actually be used be a finite time? Will the same thing happen 80 years from now when someone wants to take an old videogame for a machine that is no longer being made and save it? You bet, if things continue.
Another in a long line of copyright screwups, mainly perpetrated by people hoping to make a buck since the original artists are long dead. Another example of where corporations have distorted our commonweal.
[I’m still bitter because the best documentary on Hollywood’s silent era, Hollywood by Kevin Brownlow, may never be seen again. Copyright issues for almost every single movie in the documentary prevent it from being updated from videotape. Everyone wants their own piece of the pie – when the right people can even be found – requiring negotiations that make it simply impossible to continue. So when someone wants to rescue this great work from degradation by converting it to a modern format, they will be prevented or have to do it on the black market, like some sort of scene from Fahrenheit 451. Thus the principles of copyright have been twisted, resulting in the lose of innovations. We can all thank Disney and Sonny Bono for that.]