The copyright Law of 1909 - Mike Montgomery


Our"Boogie Beat" newsletter is published quarterly for members only.  In the current issue, independent music historian Mike Montgomery writes about the impact of the copyright law of 1909. An excerpt is reprinted below. To read the entire article, become a member of the AMRF. You will receive of Boogie Beat in the mail and become eligible member discounts on tickets and merchandise, including our forthcoming DVD from the 2004 Motor City Blues & Boogie Woogie Festival, "Boogie and the Blues Diva."

The copyright laws enacted in the US in the late 1700s were intended to protect the OWNERS of written (and musical) material from unlawful (and unfair) infringement by others.  That simply means if someone publishes a book, or a music company publishes a song, no one else can legally appropriate it, without permission.  Let’s say it’s 1870, some years before the invention of paper music rolls and phonograph records (and cylinders).  You write (compose) a song.  To get it published for general sale you first need to “sell” an established music publisher to see merit in your song and to envision selling enough copies to make a profit....

..When a song is under copyright protection, no one else can legally appropriate your song (or any part of it).  But it’s up to you to sell your song to a publisher who will treat you fairly at the outset, if that’s possible.

The important concept to keep in mind is this:  ONLY ONE PUBLISHER CAN OWN YOUR SONG AT ANY ONE TIME...

Enter the Inventors

During the 1870s a variety of clever inventors were working on ways to make mechanical music and reproduce recorded sounds.  In the player field, John McTammany was developing his concept of creating perforated paper rolls which would be scrolled across a sort of harmonica by a crank.  With the right amount of air pressure, brass reeds would sound according to the notes that were cut into the paper roll.  This was the birth of the mammoth player industry.  At first, small perforated rolls, covering about 14 notes on the piano, were produced and were designed to play on small table-top “organettes."  Soon larger self-contained organs, operated by foot pedals became available, and these played many more notes.  By the end of the 19th century, the rolls had grown larger, and there were devices which could play the keys on a regular piano.  These devices are known today (to collectors and historians) as “push-ups.”   The German Welte Company called its push-up a “Vorsetzer” which translates into a “Sitter In Front Of” player.  In the meantime the phonograph inventors were perfecting the reproduction of sound using either cylinders or small flat discs which could play back sounds, voices and music on early phonographs....

At first the publishers, when discovering their tunes appearing on these small crude paper rolls, may have been pleased and even amused.  The rolls contained no lyrics (lyrics on rolls would come many years later), and if properly credited to the composers and publishers may have even been considered a sales stimulus to get people to go to their local music stores and buy the actual sheet music.  But later on, when scads of published and copyrighted songs were appearing on paper rolls, it was no longer amusing.  Publishers demanded royalties, and it was up to Congress to change the existing copyright law to cover this new development...

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