Last year, musical theater composers Georgia Stitt and Jason Robert Brown wrote a couple of high profile blog entries in which they pleaded with their fans to stop illegally sharing the sheet music of their works online. Several national (and international) news organizations followed up with Brown in radio and print interviews, and Stitt is now leading an effort in the Dramatists Guild to find ways of curtailing such copyright infringement.
It can be easy to assume that the current public conversation over music piracy and copyright law is an entirely new phenomenon, made into a public issue only because of the unprecedented power of the 21st century Internet to transfer large amounts of data quickly and relatively anonymously. In fact, as Andrew Lamb notes in his biography of Leslie Stuart (the composer of Florodora), a similar moment happened in the early days of the 20th century when a drop in the cost of pianos created a demand for cheap sheet music at a time when photographic printing technology had made it possible to quickly and relatively inexpensively produce pirated copies of short publications.
Stuart, a frequently pirated composer, fought against this infringement of his rights for much of his career. In the 1890s, he lobbied the music societies to protect their members’ intellectual property, and, at one point, went so far as to physically attack street vendors selling pirated copies of his work. All of this was, however, largely ineffective. In 1906, Stuart estimated that he had made less than 33 pounds (roughly $3,000 in today’s money) from sales of Florodora sheet music (despite its immense popularity). At the time, the only legal recourse Stuart had was to sue the pirates, but, as he discovered, most were very poor and did not have money to repay the amount their work had cost him.
Lamb proposes that Stuart may have turned to writing for the stage because "royalties for theater performances were so much easier to collect and protect." Stuart was also very particular about how his music was used on the stage (perhaps his run-ins with the pirates had made him especially sensitive to his intellectual property rights). He insisted that any licensed performances use “no less than two verses” of his original version and fought for greater integration of the songs into the plot of the show. Lamb quotes an interview with Stuart that appeared in The Daily Mail in which the composer argued, “In comic opera the song had to be deftly 'worked up to;' in musical comedy plunges are made into the numbers without remorse and without apology.” Although Stuart wrote a popular music of the sort likely to appear in a musical comedy, he desired that his music be integrated into such productions in the way songs are in comic operas, and he had learned the legal mechanisms to insist that his wishes be respected.
A common rationale for intellectual property law is that it encourages innovation and creativity as it offers an incentive to inventors and artists to create. Perversely, though, it may have been piracy that provoked innovation in the case of Stuart. Still, the cost to Stuart should not be overlooked. By 1910, despite having written several international hit musicals as well as many enormously popular songs, Stuart was bankrupt.
In the early 1900s, piracy subsided when publishers finally began to meet the public’s demand for cheaper editions of their music at the same time that the British government passed laws enacting stiffer penalties for copyright infringement. In the 21st century, American society has begun to experiment with the same approaches as services like iTunes, Netflix, and musicnotes.com provide new ways of legitimately purchasing content online at the same time that the American government considers increasingly criminal penalties for copyright infringement. It is an open question, though, whether these approaches, which admittedly seem to have worked a century ago, are the best ways of balancing the rights of artists with the public good today.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
NOTE: Summer turns out to be a very busy time for newly installed digital curators of the performing arts. As a result, I'm running a bit behind schedule on the Musical of the Month. Rest assured, though, there will be a new libretto available in the next week or two.