The History Of Music Piracy 

Joesph Langdon
Updated July 6, 2018 2.1k views 12 items

The effects of music piracy have lead to many campaigns against the practice, usually to laughable effects. In the video game world it often amounts to straight up trolling on the developers part. But when did music piracy start? The history of music piracy is a game of tug o' war between publishers and pirates that goes all the way back to the advent of the printing press. Some bands, like Dead Kennedys, embraced this new form of sharing music. Others, like Metallica, put their reputation through the ringer to stand up to theft.

Regardless of where you stand on the grand piracy debate, it never hurts to be informed. Here's a list of music piracy facts that covers the history of the practice, from the 19th century to now.

Sound Recordings Were Not Covered By Copyright Law Until 1972
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Photo: CBS Television/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When copyright law was first ironed out in 1790, it only covered books, maps, and charts. It wasn't until 1831 that this protection was extended to written music, though recordings still remained unprotected. This was because of the tricky nature of recorded music - which was a combination of both a songwriter and a performer's effort. In such murky situations it can be unclear as to who the copyright should go to, at least without extensive additions to copyright protocol. Those extensions weren't rolled out until 1972, which effectively criminalized music piracy.

People Were Bootlegging Sheet Music As Early As The 19th Century
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Photo: Anonymous/Wikipedia/Public Domain

Music pirates have been stealing tunes since the 19th century, when it was fashionable to print song sheets of popular tunes. The advent of the printing press sparked a revolution of easy and affordable bootlegging. Whereas books and articles were relatively easy to regulate, music turned out to be tricky to copyright, since by nature, songs offer near-infinite arrangement possibilities. It also turned out to be significantly cheaper to photocopy sheet music rather than an entire book, which meant a market could be flooded with bootlegs that much faster.

Thomas Edison Kicked Off Recorded Music Piracy With The Invention Of The Phonograph
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Photo: Levin C. Handy/Wikipedia/Public Domain

Modern music piracy truly found its roots in the inventions of one of America's most notable inventors, Thomas Edison. The inventor created the phonograph in 1887, which allowed sound to be recorded on a tinfoil sheet wrapped around a cylinder. For the first time, music pirates could take music and record it for themselves, by making an impression of one record onto another. Over time, improvements were made to the machine and it became easier and easier to duplicate recordings. By the time the wax cylinder came along, the rights holders of various songs were pushing Congress to protect their assets. According to one historical record:

...The sounds inscribed on early phonographs simply provided the aural content for a physical object, engraved on the surface of a wax cylinder only to be wiped away and replaced by the traces of other sounds. What the talking machine said mattered less than that it spoke and, perhaps, how well it spoke. 

Edison knew by the nature of his own genius that what he created could be dangerous in the wrong hands, which is why he sought to protect himself by creating a "trust." This was essentially a monopoly on all technology associated with his own inventions that made it difficult for others to enter the creative fray and enforced Edison's patents, specifically his motion picture camera. According to one episode of Film School'D, Edison did this "Even while he was copying negatives of others’ films (including those made overseas), stamping his name on them, and profiting heavily from them. "

Many Early Pirates Were Simply Concerned With Preserving Rare Music
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Photo: Rowland Scherman/Wikipedia/Public Domain

From unreleased music like Bob Dylan's The Basement Tapes to live performances never heard elsewhere, music piracy has been preserving music history for decades. It goes all the way back to the jazz age when old-fashioned audiophiles copied out-of-print vinyl records and wax cylinders to keep them in circulation. Historically, production companies have been unconcerned with preserving all of their libraries, so it's a very real risk that certain songs could disappear forever. Some even believe that pirate preservation is necessary to keep culture alive.