The History Of Music Piracy
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 1972Photo: 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 CenturyPhoto: 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 PhonographPhoto: 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 MusicPhoto: 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.
Home Taping Pirates Shared Music With Friends All Throughout The 80sPhoto: Know Your Meme / Creative Commons
The early '80s saw the advent of dual cassette decks, which allowed pirates to conveniently duplicate a cassette they already owned in the comfort of their own home. This was perhaps the first piracy movement that wasn't directly tied to profit. In many cases of tape piracy, people just wanted to share music with their friends. The record industry responded with the slogan "Home taping is killing music — and it's illegal." The slogan did little to stop would-be pirates, and some independent record companies began issuing tapes with a blank B-side that listeners could fill with whatever they wanted — a tongue-in-cheek wink to convey they knew what you were up to, and that they were helpless in the face of it.
In Only Three Years, Napster Changed The Face Of Music Piracy ForeverPhoto: Napster / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Digital music, in the form of MP3s, made piracy possible on a global scale. Napster came onto the internet scene in 1999, and gave users the ability to share digital music files on a central server. After years-long lawsuits with the likes of Madonna and Metallica, the service was shut down in 2001 by a San Francisco court. This left the site's 80 million users searching for somewhere else to obtain music. None of the creators were deemed pirates, but they were charged with helping facilitate piracy, and Napster filed for bankruptcy after being ordered to pay nearly $36 million in damages. The Napster court case set the precedent for what would be a decades-long legal battle against piracy.