Copyright Law Always Tied to Technology of the Time

THE JOURNAL RECORD, July 31, 2000 | Go to article overview

Copyright Law Always Tied to Technology of the Time


WASHINGTON (AP) -- The music industry was in an uproar. In parlors and saloons across the country, people loaded cylinders into player pianos, pumped the pedals, and out came the tunes, without a penny paid to the composers or the sheet music publishers. Something, they screamed, had to be done.

The year was 1908. It was, in a sense, the Ragtime Napster.

Today, Napster is sending shockwaves through the recording industry. But the spasms over the free Internet music service are consistent with other times when copyright law seemed unable to cope with an unanticipated, wildly popular invention.

"Every one of the new technologies, had you been there at the debate, you would have heard that this technology was the killer application," said Marybeth Peters, the register of copyrights for the U.S. Copyright Office. "The debate really happened like you are hearing it today."

A federal judge in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday shutting down Napster at the request of the Recording Industry Association of America, which had sued the online company in December for copyright infringement.

Music has been protected by copyright since 1831. But copyright protection was limited only to a tangible form -- such as sheet music -- and not reproduction of the sound itself.

"Nobody had ever conceived of a copy of something that you couldn't see in the work," Peters said. A copy, by law, had to be "visually perceptible," and the Supreme Court in 1908 held that player piano rolls were not copies of musical composition. A general revision of the law the next year resolved the problem, Peters said.

In the late 1960s, the introduction of audio cassette recorders led to widespread street piracy of albums, Peters said. That prompted an amendment in 1972 protecting sound recordings -- the physical product, and not just the music -- for the first time, she said.

The recording and motion picture industries have tried repeatedly since then to stop copying. The motion picture industry sued Sony over its Betamax videocassette recorder in 1984, claiming the VCR aided piracy of movies, and lost.

"The Supreme Court said, `No, you can have home VCRs,'" said Steven A. Hetcher, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University. "As long as the technology can be used legally, you can't force the maker to stop making it. …

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