Final Assignment

The Legacy of the 1909 Copyright Act

The utilization of copyright acts in the United States has been required to shift in order to meet the needs of emerging technological advancement. Beginning with the first of such acts in 1790, United States copyright laws have been periodically updated to adjust with the demands of copyright holders. However, the Copyright Act of 1909 was distinct, not only due to its longevity, but also because of its effects on the music industry. Despite its later problems, the 1909 Copyright Act would ultimately lead to the modern understanding of copyright in the United States.

The effort to reform copyright law in the early twentieth century was largely the result of the technological advancements that affected the music industry. The invention of player pianos (pianolas) led to a demand from music publishers for stronger copyright protection, while the Aeolian Company, a pianola manufacturer, was steadily building a monopoly on mechanical recording rights from numerous publishers.[1] The legal disputes between composers, publishers, and mechanical recording companies led to the 1909 Copyright Act. According to Stanford University Law Professor Paul Goldstein, “Congress brought phonograph records as well as pianola rolls within the new law, and also took account of the feared Aeolian monopoly by subjecting the right to a compulsory license.”[2] The ramifications of the compulsory licenses could not be overstated. New York Law School Professor Edward Samuels explained this by simply stating that the Copyright Act, “provided that, once a music copyright owner made a recording of the work, anyone else could market and distribute recordings of the same work for a set fee.”[3] The compromise had been set: with composers and publishers being compensated for their music, and recording manufacturers no longer threatened by monopolies on distribution rights, the Copyright Act had seemingly met its goal.

The drawback to this revitalized emphasis on music copyright was that it created a larger population of potential copyright infringers. Goldstein was able to outline the two-fold problem that arose from creating copyright violators:

“First, the 1909 Act provided that for an unauthorized performance to infringe copyright it had to be not only public but also ‘for profit.’ Concerts were admission was charged were an easy case. But was background music in a restaurant played ‘for profit’? Second, unlicensed performances went on in cabarets, dance halls, and restaurants in virtually every city… To police each infringing performance and file lawsuits against them would likely cost more than any damages that might be recovered.”[4]

While the 1909 Copyright Act was intended to mediate between publishers and recording manufacturers, it had done so at the expense of many of their customers. Legal action against them was not practical; a trend that would only grow as technology made the possibilities for information distribution even greater. By 1972, one scholar wrote that 1909 Copyright Act needed to be recalled, in part, because it was no conducive to, “the prospective development of computer-based systems in which entire libraries of copyrighted works will be stored and made available for reproduction and transmission on demand.”[5] Clearly, the implications of the Copyright Act had forced people to seriously consider what qualified as infringement; a consideration that persisted long after the Act had been repealed.

Another significant aspect of the 1909 Copyright Act was that it prolonged the use of renewals in American copyright. Under the Act, copyright was extended to twenty-eight years following publication, with the renewal period expanded from fourteen to twenty-eight years.[6] In a sense, this made the United States copyright law distinct on the international level. Samuels wrote that, “even by 1909, most of the rest of the world had expanded their protection to the life of the author plus 50 years, and that term was seriously considered in the Congressional debates. But Congress, in its wisdom, chose to retain the renewal system, and to limit protection to 56 years.”[7] The continuation of the renewal system was simply another way by which the Copyright Act attempted to re-asses the compromise between copyright holder and customers

The 1909 Copyright Act is a prime example of how copyright legislature has evolved in the United States. While it initially attempted to find a compromise between creators and distributors, its existence brought forth the question of how a copyright infringer should be defined. That question can still be debated to this day. Even after the 1909 Act was replaced by the 1976 Act, many of its precedents managed to survive, either within the legislation or on the public consciousness. 


[1] Paul Goldstein, Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 51-52.

[2] Ibid., 53.

[3] Edward Samuels, The Illustrated Story of Copyright (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000), 184.

[4] (Goldstein 2003, 54).

[5] Abe A. Goldman, “Copyright as It Affects Libraries: Legal Implications,” in Copyright: Current Viewpoints on History, Laws, Legislation, ed. Allen Kent and Harold Lancour (New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1972),

[6] Clement Harrison, “History,” in Copyright: Current Viewpoints on History, Laws, Legislation, ed. Allen Kent and Harold Lancour (New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1972), 3.

[7] (Samuels 2000, 206).



Goldstein, Paul. Copyright’s Highway: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Kent, Allen and Harold Lancour, ed. Copyright: Current Viewpoints on History, Laws, Legislation. New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1972.

Samuels, Edward. The Illustrated Story of Copyright. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.



One Response to “Final Assignment”