Music Piracy In… The 1910s


12.08.10 Posted in Blog by

In the previous post in this ‘Music Piracy In…’ series, I gave an overview of the music piracy practices that emerged alongside the upcoming music industry in the late nineteenth century. While the most popular medium for music at that time was printed sheet music, a new range of music carriers was being developed in the background. This post moves on to the 1910s and takes a look at the piracy practices surrounding the first musical recordings. It shows how music piracy appeared in the recording industry and, perhaps even more important, how it disappeared again.

At the end of the nineteenth century a new range of music carriers was being developed next to sheet music. One those new carriers for example was the pianola (or player piano), that was very popular during a short period in the early twentieth century. Another, more famous, one was that of the recording. For the first time in history sounds could be preserved and reproduced. In the late 19th century these sounds were recorded on the innovative cylinder (or talking machine). As making duplicate copies of these recordings at the end of the 19th century was even hard for companies that had a patent application for it, it was certainly not commercially viable to copy these recordings illegally. However, when duplicating methods began to evolve, music piracy appeared in the trade of musical recordings too.

Unique Recordings

Since there was no satisfying method for preparing copies at the turn of the century, each recording was a unique document. Meeting the demand for recordings meant that recording artists were faced with an array of recording machines, ranging from a few to ten or more, depending on the sound that the performers could produce. Before every recording an announcer would say the name of the performers and the performance. First this was used as an advertisement for the source of the recording, but as duplicating techniques evolved, soon this began to be used as evidence of origin to prevent for copying by other companies. Later, these announcements would sometimes also continue into the music itself to prevent the possibility to block out the spoken announcement.

‘This time the pressing plants were accused of piracy’

Since it took a lot of time to produce additional copies, recording companies had begun copying one another’s product to meet the demand of popular titles. Resulting from these practices, the first litigations involving recording rights began to occur. This time however it weren’t organized groups of pirates that were accused for stealing music but it were the pressing plants themselves. The demand for music was high while the supply due to technical difficulties was low, which had resulted in pressing plants copying one another’s recordings to satisfy the demand of the consumer. Actual convictions resulting from these litigations however are very rare.

The Rise Of The Disc – The Decline Of Piracy

After the turn of the century, the disc became a strong competitor for the cylinder and the popularity of the cylinder began to decline. Columbia Records and Edison’s National Phonograph Company were able to improve the method to cut duplicate records, allowing for greater volume and better reproduction of musical recordings. Subsequently problems with reprinting (or record piracy) seem to have disappeared not of litigation, but because the newer technology made the piracies impractical and unnecessary.

The described music piracy practices of the 1910s reveal two interesting things. The first thing is that they reveal that public demand formed an important inducement for music piracy. The demand for music was high while the supply of music, due to technical difficulties, was low. The second thing that is revealed is that the term pirate is very flexible. While it was used for the leaders of (criminal) organizations that copied sheet music in the late 19th century, it was used to depict the recording companies themselves in the early 20th century.

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




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