Music Industry

The laws around music copyright have been awful for 500 years. Can we ever fix it?

Controlling the distribution of music — and thus making sure composers get paid for their labour and talent — has been a problem that dates back to the invention of the printing press.

In 1498, less than 50 years after Johannes Gutenberg revealed the printing press, a savvy entrepreneur named Ottaviano Petrucci received a patent from the Venetian Senate for publishing musical notation with one of these new-fangled machines, giving him a monopoly on sheet music. He controlled the copyright and publishing of all music. But then in 1516, Pope Leo X stripped away Petrucci’s power when it came to organ music and gave it all to Andrea Antico, someone who pleased the pontiff more.

This mess continued through the centuries. In England, Elizabeth I granted William Byrd and Tomas Tallis a patent on all music publishing, which not only included all music created in the kingdom but also prohibited foreign vendors from peddling their music in England. The cherry on top was that Byrd and Tallis also owned the rights to the printing of blank music paper. In other words, if you were an English composer, you had to pay them even before you wrote down a single note. Soon after, a French composer named Jean-Baptiste Lully managed to secure control over all operas performed in France and became one of the wealthiest people in the country.

It took a while for these royal-granted monopolies to be wiped out, leading to the Berne Convention of 1886, which set the first true international standards for who had the right to copy and distribute intellectual property with a focus on the rights of the creators and not the publishers. Those terms have been renegotiated a number of times in the last century-and-a-half. Meanwhile, technology marched on, adding new levels of complexity to protecting the rights of artists, especially in the digital age.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37808 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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