Music Piracy In… The 1900s

12.02.10 Posted in Blog by

In the series “Music Piracy In…” I attempt to come to a better understanding of music piracy. By looking at its history and by giving a description of piracy practices and cultures I try to create more insight in music piracy than the usual one-sided coverage. In an earlier post in this series I already described how music piracy looked like before the advent of a real music industry. In this post, I move on the the early twentieth century. What did music piracy look like in the 1900s?

“The music industry is facing a crisis. New technology, new media, and innovative business practices are challenging the copyright principles that have underpinned the industry for as long as anyone can remember. Taking advantage of a revolutionary process that allows for exact copying, “pirates” are replicating songs at a tremendous rate. The public sees nothing wrong in doing business with them. Their publicity, after all, speaks of a mainstream music industry that is monopolistic and exploitative of artist and public alike. The pirates, by contrast, are ostentatiously freedom loving. [...] They are, they claim, bringing music to a vast public otherwise entirely unserved. [...] The recently booming “dot” companies band together to lobby the government for a radical strengthening of copyright law. [...] the crisis of piracy calls the very existence of a music industry into question.”

The above quote comes from the book Piracy by Adrian Johns, a professor in history at the University of Chicago. Johns gives a description of the difficult situation in which the music industry found itself, not in the 21st century, but in the beginning of the 20th century. In the late 19th century a music industry came into existence, due to the growing popularity of the piano and the increasing sales of sheet music that accompanied it. Music became a commodity and the production and sales of sheet music was a lucrative business. However, the same factors that made the mass printing of sheet music viable also did the same for the widespread illegal copying and sale of music. With commercial interests likely to be threatened, music piracy became a structural problem for the first time.


The apparent public demand for more music at a cheaper price, made it possible for sheet music pirates to increase their output. The music publishers saw this as unfair competition and as they could not turn to copyright law, they began to trace the sheet music pirates themselves. The hunting for music pirates, the mass availability of pirated sheet music, and the public opinion that showed no compassion for the monopolistic and exploitative music industry lead to the first crisis in the young music industry. A set of circumstances that would reappear in the decades following and that bears a lot of resemblances with today’s ‘crisis’ in the music industry.

What is interesting to remark is that next to being profitable businesses, the piracy practices were also already connected to ideologies. The main ideology connected to sheet music piracy in the early 20th century can be characterized as ‘improving the accessibility of music’. In the eyes of the sheet music pirates, sheet music was too expensive and could therefore not reach the lower classes. Next to aiming for profit, the piracy cultures thus pursued a better accessible music culture by offering illegal, cheaper reprints of sheet music.

This post is part of the ‘Music Piracy In…’ series. For more information about this series, take a look at this introductory post.

5 Responses to “Music Piracy In… The 1900s”

  1. [...] Posted in Blog by Robbert van Ooijen In the previous post in this ‘Music Piracy In…’ series, I gave an overview of the music piracy practices that [...]

  2. [...] threat of piracy to music goes all the way back to the illicit republishing of sheet music at the beginning of the 20th century, and how we’ve grown since then. So answer me this. With the [...]

  3. [...] as a plague that just started affecting the music industry but they fail to understand that piracy has always been present in the industry and the only way to reduce loss of revenue is by creating opportunities with it [...]

  4. [...] continue. This, after all, was a battle on their historical turf – sheet music piracy was the first battle they fought, and with fists and boots rather than legal [...]

  5. […] of media? Nope. Before that shellac recordings were pirated, the original cylinders were pirated…even sheet music was pirated. The novels of Dickens were pirated in the US, and Twain was pirated in England; and Victor Hugo […]

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