Music Piracy In… The Beginning

11.25.10 Posted in Blog by

Music piracy is often regarded as something that is self-evident and that has been existing throughout history. However, despite that the illicit reproduction of musical scores, practices that are nowadays depicted as ‘piracy’, existed throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century, these practices weren’t regarded as a structural problem during this period and certainly weren’t depicted as piracy at that time. In the pre music industry era, what is called piracy today was the norm.

Illegal Reprinting

Although complaints about intellectual misappropriation go back to the Ancient times and the term piracy was connected to intellectual property in the late seventeenth century, music piracy only became regarded as a structural problem with the advent of a music industry in the late nineteenth century. Before that, musical scores were often reproduced without the consent of those who had written them. Copyright protection as we know it today did not exist and the reproduction of a composer’s work without any renumeration to him was very common.

Although there were some composers who were cautious for republication, such as Mozart, lawsuits about the illegal reproduction of music before the emergence of a music industry are extremely rare. In contrast with books, reprints of musical scores were even reissued unauthorized and were often altered for paying clients. Republication was not considered illegal, nor even immoral.

What is interesting about these practices that are nowadays designated with the inclusive term ‘piracy’ is that instead of being a negative influence on the music culture, it helped with the dissemination of music. It made it for example possible that a piece of music that was first printed in Amsterdam was being sold in Leipzig two weeks later in an handwritten copy.


The lot of today’s musician therefore actually compares very well to that of their predecessors in the pre music industry era. Because music could not be registered at a Copyright Office, it was hard, not to say impossible, to claim royalties over your work. For centuries long artists could not claim royalties over their compositions. Great composers such as Liszt or Paganini did not have a back catalogue.

It was only with the emergence of a music industry in the late nineteenth century that a musician could expect any additional payment for a performance. The live character of music, the inability to turn to copyright and the tradition to alter musical scores without having to ask permission ensured that until deep in the nineteenth century, music piracy was not regarded as a problem. Piracy was the norm. This shows an important characteristic of music piracy: It only exists when its practice is regarded as a problem.

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

3 Responses to “Music Piracy In… The Beginning”

  1. […] Piracy In… A Series of Posts (Introduction) Music Piracy In… The Beginning Music Piracy In… The […]

  2. […] 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 […]

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