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Music Pirates in Canada!

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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“MUSIC PIRATES IN CANADA: American Publishers Say They Are Suffering by Copyright Violations There – Steps Taken for Redress”

While this sounds like a headline ripped from a newspaper of today, it actually comes from an 1897 article in the New York Times. Enterprising Canadians were selling the sheet music of popular songs via mail to Americans for 5 – 10 cents, undercutting the 20 – 50 cents charged by copyright owners:

“Canadian pirates” is what the music dealers call publishing houses across the line who are flooding this country, they say, with spurious editions of the latest copyrighted popular songs. They use the mails to reach purchasers, so members of the American Music Publishers’ Association assert, and as a result the legitimate music publishing business of the United States has fallen off 50 per cent in the past twelve months.

Jake Brown of Glorious Noise, one of the blogs (along with Idolator, BestActEver and boing boing) to rediscover this intriguing article in the archives of the New York Times, notes:

According to this handy inflation calculator, “What cost $.40 in 1897 would cost $10.22 in 2008.” That’s kinda a lotta money for sheet music, isn’t it?

The United States has a long history of not respecting the intellectual property of those from other countries, but this is the the earliest example I’ve seen that illustrates the U.S. shift from copyright scofflaw (we refused to sign Berne for ages, for example, and for many years U.S. publishers would republish British novels without paying any royalties).

It also interestingly illustrates what I thought was a very early use of the term “pirate” to describe a copyright infringer. Apparently, though, this usage goes back much earlier than 1897, according to Ben Zimmer at the Visual Thesaurus:

From early on, the words pirate and piracy were extended to other types of pillaging. As part of an extended rant against derivative poets in his 1603 pamphlet The Wonderfull Yeare, Thomas Dekker calls upon the Muses to “banish these Word-pirates, (you sacred mistresses of learning) into the gulfe of Barbarisme.” The metaphor of intellectual piracy took hold in early modern English, with plagiarizers and unauthorized copiers of manuscripts compared to robbers on the high seas. Illegally reproduced books came to be known as “pirate editions” by the eighteenth century, long before online file-sharing made the piracy of copyrighted material child’s play.

So, like many things, the current battle between distributors and owners is hardly new.

I would also like to note the benefits to historical research of free access to archives like those of the New York Times. Great stuff!

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