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MMD > Archives > January 2012 > 2012.01.25 > 04Prev  Next

Copyrighting a Piano Roll
By Matthew Caulfield

In trying to understand the history of U.S. Federal copyright law, one
has to consider the two major copyright acts governing copyright during
our lifetime: the Copyright Act of 1909 and the Copyright Act of 1976.

The 1909 law did not allow for copyrighting sound recordings such as
piano rolls, but fortunately the 1909 act has been superseded by the
1976 act, which does make sound recordings copyrightable.  For the
basic elements of both acts and to understand the differences between
them, look at the Wikipedia articles about both.   However if you
aren't concerned about pre-1976 creations, you can forget about the
1909 law.

The fact that sound recordings were not eligible for copyright until
the 1976 law made them so was a doctrine established by the famous
White-Smith vs. Apollo case, tried before the U.S. Supreme Court and
decided in 1908 (again see Wikipedia for that case).

The Supreme Court held that, since sound recordings can't be read by
humans (tell that to somebody like J. Lawrence Cook), they can't be
Federally copyrighted.  That led to unbridled sound-recording piracy
which couldn't be controlled by the legislation enacted by the
individual States.  Pirates simply moved their operations across State
lines to escape prosecution by any State.   It wasn't until 1976 that
this situation was successfully remedied.

So today sound recordings, including music rolls, are protected by
Federal copyright.  A principle in the 1976 act that was not contained
in the 1909 act is that no formal action is required to obtain that
Federal copyright protection.  The very fact that you have created a
work, whether it be a book, a composition, a work of art, a computer
program, or any other piece of human creativity, invests you with the
copyright for that creation and gives you control over its use and
possible distribution.

The 1976 act did away with the 1909 act's requirement that all copies
of a copyrighted work carry a copyright notice and that two copies of
the work be deposited in the Copyright Office, a department of the
Library of Congress, along with the filing of a copyright application
and the payment of a small registration fee.

So the Lady Liberty Chapter composer on whose behalf Vincent Morgan
wrote to yesterday's MMD already owns a copyright on his piano roll
(and also on the underlying musical composition or arrangement).  No
further action is required to secure copyright.  But to prove copyright
ownership and to have proof that can be used in court if necessary, he
can put a copyright notice on any copy of the roll he produces and also
register his copyright with the Copyright Office.

These actions, although not required, are actions that most authors and
publishers do take in order to protect their rights.  If there is a
copyright notice on every copy of a work released, then no infringer
can later plead innocent infringement as a defense.

My explanation, although it seems long and windy, is a vast
simplification of the issues involved with copyright, especially music
copyright.  I have been silent here about the duration of copyright
coverage, which is a complex issue, made even more complex by the
infamous Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (see another Wikipedia
article for that), which was pure special-interest legislation
introduced and passed to benefit Disney and others.

More information about registration for copyright can be had from the
Copyright Office's web site, 

Matthew Caulfield
Irondequoit, New York

(Message sent Wed 25 Jan 2012, 18:13:05 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Copyrighting, Piano, Roll

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