March 31, 2004 | By Fred von Lohmann

The Wicked Player Piano

When considering what to make of the recording industry's current rants against peer-to-peer file sharing software, it may help to remember how the record industry got its start -- by pirating the works of famous American songwriters. Consider this article, written by John Philip Sousa in 1906:

"I foresee a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations, by virtue -- or rather by vice -- of the multiplication of the various music-reproducing machines."

"[F]or the life of me I am puzzled to know why the powerful corporations controlling these playing and talking machines are so totally blind to the moral and ethical questions involved. Could anything be more blamable, as a matter of principle, than to take an artist's composition, reproduce it a thousandfold on their machines, and deny him all participation in the large financial returns...?"

He was complaining about player pianos, the genesis technology for the recorded music industry.

Sousa's fix? He supported a bill introduced in Congress on June 6, 1906 that would have amended the Copyright Act to give copyright owners like Sousa a monopoly over all machines capable of reproducing sound.

Specifically, the bill proposed that "the copyright secured by this Act shall include the sole and exclusive right to make, sell, distribute, or let for hire any device, contrivance, or appliance especially adapted in any manner whatsoever to reproduce to the ear the whole or any material part of any work published and copyrighted after this Act shall have gone into effect, or by means of any such device or appliance publicly to reproduce to the ear the whole or any material part of such work."

Fortunately for the American public and the nascent recording industry, Congress chose a different path, adopting a compulsory license that ensured that composers receive fair compensation -- and without squelching innovation.

The kicker is that recording industry has been taking advantage of this compulsory license from song-writers ever since (the compulsory license is now Section 115 of the Copyright Act).

Makes the RIAA's attacks on compulsory licensing -- and voluntary collective licensing, EFF's preferred solution -- ring more than a bit hollow.

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