Don’t shoot me; I’m only the player piano

en : A player piano in action performing a piano roll. fr : Un piano mécanique en action. Original uploader was JazzNZ at en.wikipedia  Released into the public domain (by the author).

Why player pianos have a role to play – The Irish Times – Tue, Apr 24, 2012.  This article in the Irish Times talks about the work of American composer Conlon Nancarrow,* the centerpiece of a two-day-long concert event in London last weekend.  Nancarrow wrote about 50 studies for player piano.  Unlike some of the other composers (and instrument inventors) in the field, Nancarrow wasn’t interested in endowing player pianos with a more human-like sound.  Instead, he wanted to explore the complexities that only become possible by removing the ten-fingered primate from the equation.  “Equation” was often the accurate term: canons and counterpoints were often related by irrational-number ratios.  And yet Nancarrow once said:

“My essential concern, whether you can analyze it or not, is emotional; there’s an impact that I try to achieve by these means.”

Sounds like art, doesn’t it?  Like, oh, a work of authorship or something?  And yet player-piano rolls were initially not treated like other musical compositions under U.S. copyright law.  Every student of copyright law has read White-Smith Music Pub. Co. v. Apollo Co, 209 U.S. 1 (1908) where the Supreme Court held that player-piano rolls did not infringe the copyright of the corresponding sheet music.  This was in line with other cases where music-box and gramophone cylinders were held not to be potentially-infringing “copies” of musical compositions.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Day, states in part:

“[E]ven those skilled in the making of these rolls are unable to read them as musical compositions,** as those in staff notations are read by the performer. It is true that there is some testimony to the effect that great skill and patience might enable the operator to read this record as he could a piece of music written in staff notation. But the weight of the testimony is emphatically the other way, and they are not intended to be read as an ordinary piece of sheet music, which, to those skilled in the art, conveys, by reading, in playing or singing, definite impressions of the melody.”

The upshot was that the Copyright Act, as it existed in 1908, did not mandate composer control of player-piano rolls or any other strictly machine-readable renditions of a musical work. Both the majority and concurring opinions said that yes, the composers probably were losing money on the deal, but if Congress did not intend that effect, it needed to change the language of the statute.  Hint. . . hint. . .

The following year Congress slapped a two-cent-per-copy tax on player-piano rolls***  and revised the Copyright Act  to give composers (and any assignees of their copyrights) the exclusive right  “to make any arrangement or record in which the thought of an author may be recorded and from which it may be read or reproduced.” 35 Stat. 1, §1(e).  With that language, there might have still been arguments that a machine couldn’t really “read” as a human does, but there’s no doubt that player pianos “reproduce” musical compositions that are “recorded” on piano rolls.  Still, Congress tried a lot harder to conclusively close the loopholes in the 1976 Copyright Act, which identifies “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device” are copyrightable.

So, a nosy person might wonder, what kind of copyrights persist in Conlon Nancarrow’s compositions?  He continued writing player-piano studies well into the 1990s (including “For Yoko” dedicated to his wife) mainly while living in Mexico.  Everything after 1976 could have been covered in the US or any other Berne Convention country, even if not registered, but what about the earlier stuff?

The Internet was made for nosy people!  Four volumes of “Studies for Player Piano” were registered with the US Copyright Office between 1977 and 1984.  Under current copyright law, his heirs and assigns may control recordings and performances of these and his other works until 70 years after his 1997 death – i.e. until 2067.


*I played keyboards for a few decades and minored in music at U of I — even got into the Music Honor Society — and I said ‘”Who?” too, so don’t feel bad.

**Now I feel less bad about not quickly warming up to the piano-roll songwriting mode in Apple Garage Band(TM)

***none of which, I’d be willing to bet, the composers ever saw

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