Do you think there’s magic in writing, that visual representation of the spoken word? Then reflect for a moment about how we managed to develop a visual representation of music!
Irving Berlin took advantage of that technology and a federal law when he copyrighted the sheet music to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” on 18 March 1911. He sold more than 1.5 million copies in the first 18 months after its publication.
“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was the multimillion-selling smash hit that helped turn American popular music into a major international phenomenon, both culturally and economically…
Most people first encountered “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” when it was played on the piano by a friend or family member. This was the way that songs caught on in the era before radio, and part of what helped “Alexander” catch on was its relative lack of complexity.
Berlin’s later creations, such as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” may “never have been written were it not for the commercial success” of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
The journey to that sheet music copyright began with Greek and Roman grammarians; they had developed signs to guide declamation (high voice, low voice and falling voice).
In the mid-1000s, medieval music scholar and teacher Guido of Arezzo decided there needed to be a better way to teach novices. Consequently, he “revolutionized the music education methods of his time.” His innovations made it possible to read music, for a signer to perform a chant that he had not heard before.
The story behind musical notation runs pretty deep. All those bars and dots and squigglies might seem simple, but together they can form a complex language to convey some amazing creative ideas… Without notation, composers wouldn’t be able to convey the complex ideas required to bring your favorite tunes to life. Even if you can’t read music, you can still thank notation every day for making this possible.
Flash forward to the US Constitution and the copyright protection that allowed Berlin to prosper economically.
In article 1, section 8, clause 8, the US Constitution grants Congress the power to enact laws to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
In 1790, Congress passed the first copyright law . It granted intellectual property protection of 14 years (with the possibility of one extension) for books, charts and maps.
The courts ruled in 1829 that the protection for books extended beyond bound volumes: “[a book] may be printed on one sheet, as the words of a song or the music accompanying it.”
President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Copyright Act of 1909 on 04 March. By this time, Congress had expanded copyright protection to 28 years with one 28-year renewal. The law extended copyright protection to motion pictures effective 24 August 1912.
In 1976, Congress extended the initial term to the life of an author plus 50 years. Cynics trace the ever-growing extension to a major corporation.
Every time Mickey’s copyright is about to expire, Disney spends millions lobbying Congress for extensions, and trading campaign contributions for legislative support. With crushing legal force, they’ve squelched anyone who attempts to disagree with them.
For works created after 01 January 1978, copyright protection encompasses the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.
For works made for hire and anonymous and pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
Mickey Mouse is scheduled to enter the public domain in 2024.