Player Piano Roll Copying is Killing Music (And It’s Maybe Illegal)

The story of copyright law in the United States is, in many ways, one chapter after another about the entertainment industry’s hyperbolic overreaction to the latest developed technology.

Today, the dispute may be about the Kindle’s automatic audio-production of e-texts, or about a 30 second clip of a baby dancing to Prince on YouTube. Before that, the great new threat to the existence of music was Napster. And before that, the movie industry was convinced that the VCR would soon put an end to Hollywood, and it took the Supreme Court to keep home recording legal. And so on and so on.

But perhaps the great granddaddy of all modern day copyright disputes was the development of the player piano:

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.

The copying of player piano rolls may not cause the entertainment industry to sic its litigation team on you today, but copyright laws are impeding the preservation of musical history. Even songs that were in the public domain in Shakespeare’s time cannot today be copied from a player piano roll, because the copyright in the roll itself still exists. Here’s what one would-be infringer was told when he contacted a company that makes player piano rolls to ask about putting recordings on the internet:

A very nice and patient man answered the phone, and I explained what I wanted to do. I explained that I would be sure to use a song that was an ancient melodie which had to be out of copyright by now, and I only wanted to do a few songs, perhaps “Greensleeves” and some ragtime melody that used a mechanism in my player piano called the “mandolin”. The nice man replied that Greensleeves was indeed out of copyright, but that the artist’s rendition of my Greensleeves roll might not be out of copyright. I began to feel the hackles on the back of my neck stand up.

The nice man continued by saying that the rendition of Greensleeves had been put onto a roll of paper, and that too included a copyright, so other player piano roll manufacturers would not just buy one roll, copy it, and sell it to other player piano owners.

The only thing shocking about this story is the fact there is still a company out there that manufactures player piano rolls.


6 thoughts on “Player Piano Roll Copying is Killing Music (And It’s Maybe Illegal)

  1. Interestingly, on at least one occasion mechanical licensing was used by an artist to enforce the integrity of his work:

    “The composer’s one inalienable right is to decide who will record his song first. Bob Dylan pulled this one in the notorious case of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’: the song was originally set to be issued in a version that Dylan had recorded live at a folk festival, but Dylan wasn’t happy with the results. Unfortunately, his contract with Columbia didn’t give him the right to decide on what material the company released, so Bob didn’t seem to have much of a choice. But then, the Poet of Our Generation remembered his first issue rights and denied a mechanical license to his own record company. The album was killed.”

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