Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Jul 12, 2010 GMT
Jon maddog Hall


Last month I briefly blogged about my love affair with old automated musical instruments such as the player piano, player reed organ, nickelodeon, wind-up phonographs and my long association with the Automatic Musical Instrument Collector's Association (AMICA).


June, 2008 was the first time that I was able to physically attend a local chapter of the AMICA, and I enjoyed meeting other people who collected and played these ancient instruments. One of the downsides of collecting the older paper-driven instruments is that in a lot of cases the paper, sometimes made with an acid-based wash, is deteriorating and some of the members are trying desperately to preserve this old music by copying the rolls, or by capturing the information into MIDI files or mpeg-3 files. These files are then put on the Internet for others to enjoy, allowing others to hear recordings of songs which the companies that produced the rolls have long been out of business.


I thought about this procedure of preserving this music, and felt there were a lot of songs that I had in my collection that I could put up on the Internet. People could then hear the sound of my instruments playing, as well as hear the music itself. As a Free Software person and a follower of the issues around copyright I would be careful to use a melodie that was long out of copyright, like "Greensleeves". But something in the back of my mind began to nag me, so I sent email to one company who still manufactures player piano rolls and asked to talk to their legal department.


A very nice and patient man answered the phone, and I explained what I wanted to do. I explained that I would be sure to use a song that was an ancient melodie which had to be out of copyright by now, and I only wanted to do a few songs, perhaps "Greensleeves" and some ragtime melody that used a mechanism in my player piano called the "mandolin". The nice man replied that Greensleeves was indeed out of copyright, but that the artist's rendition of my Greensleeves roll might not be out of copyright. I began to feel the hackles on the back of my neck stand up.


The nice man continued by saying that the rendition of Greensleeves had been put onto a roll of paper, and that too included a copyright, so other player piano roll manufacturers would not just buy one roll, copy it, and sell it to other player piano owners.


Then the nice man mentioned the "Phonorecord copyright act of 1972, which to me has always been as clear as mud, and which made this issue of rescuing an ancient song cut into fast-decomposing paper even foggier.


We ended up agreeing that if I made an mp3 recording of less than 30 seconds, off an old roll, from a company that was completely out of business, kept it completely for my own use and locked up so no one else could hear it, that I probably would not be sued. He also begged me not to use any of his company rolls in this task, as he really did not want to have to sue me. I thanked him for his time.


On the other hand I have stopped singing "Greensleeves", even when alone in the shower, and have not been heard to sing “Happy Birthday” in public for years.


Carpe Diem!


  • Archive,org's music collection

    I too appreciate the player pianos and other mechanical reproduction systems. I've just had the family's player restored.

    One thing that occurs to me is that is building an archival collection of mp3's of 78 RPM records, including making them publicly available. They haven't been asked to stop or to pull items, and must have addressed this issue.

    The MP3s and/or MIDI of the player rolls would certainly be as valid for preservation as the 78 RPM records.

    Perhaps they would be a good resource to consult about the legalities, and might be willing to host copies of the archived rolls.
  • US Copywrong laws

    Now you know why the US copyright law is widely called the 'Micky Mouse' law by any one around the world who cares.
    The dates appear to be carefilly set so W**t D****y Inc(* to avoid copyright) can 'rip off' any classical music/books it likes without paying royalties BUT nobody can copy M***y M***e.

    Love Americans BUT HATE US.Politicians and Mega Corps.


  • A message to keep 2nd and 3rd cousins from bothering you

    Something like this keeps the dilettantes and crazies away. It does not say "f--k off," simply "please don't waste my time if you aren't the copyright owner."

    "All of the material in this archive is unavailable commercially and is being offered for archival and historical purposes only. Any commercial reuse of the material is unauthorized. If you claim copyright on materials here and you wish them removed, please contact [email addr here]. I will ask you to supply proof of ownership. A notarized copyright registration certificate is your best bet. If your claim is valid and verified, the materials will be removed immediately. "
  • Not in the U.S.... so U.S. copyright law doesn't really apply

    One solution is to move the rolls and their mp3 output out of the U.S. to a jurisdiction where the U.S. copyright laws obviously do not apply, such as Canada, which has its own laws that do NOT copy the dates of the U.S. laws, but rather stick to 50 years after composition or creation or date of death of the composer/author. That takes most piano rolls out of copyright protection immediately, since the vast majority predate 1960 and most of the composers also died before 1960. Some research is needed re date of death when it is unclear who really was the composer, where false names were used, and some research might be needed as to when a roll was FIRST cut, since any recut is covered by the original and is not a new creation under most nations copyright laws.

    Of course if you are out of the U.S. to start with, ignore the U.S. rules from day 1 and follow those of your own country, whatever nation that might be.
  • Thanks for everyone's comments

    Making the archival copies is not the issue that we were trying to solve. Putting them up on the Internet so people can hear what they sound like was the desire, and that is "publishing them". I am also not sure that just being a 501(c)3 and declaring yourself an educational institution would save you either.

    As to Scott's comment: Scott, in copying the rolls we were trying to do three things: Show people what the instrument was like, preserve the music, and expose people to these long-dead artists. The first could be done through midi and playing the actual instrument as you suggested. The archival copy could probably be justified. The third might be done by the "30 second" rule.

    Or we can just put some limited number of recordings up and wait for someone to tell us to take them down.
  • X

    You asked a question of a lawyer, what kind of answer did you expect!??
  • Preservation copies?

    If libraries can make preservation photocopies of deteriorating copyright material, you should be able to make an archival copy of a piano roll. You would not be able to 'publish" this in any way (including the Net, and any swapping involving duplication), but it would keep the information from being lost before the US government collapses.

    If the same law controls rolls as does sound recordings (and I assume it would), you are probably pretty screwed as it gives precedence to STATE copyright laws.
  • Copy and Educate

    Look into either forming a 501(c)(3) corp, or applying for 501(c)(3) status. There is a difference, but the end result is the same. Either can be used as an educational outlet, and you can make use of your rolls within that narrow context. Also, investigate the Fair Use doctrine, just for your own edification.

    Myself, I'd do as I damn well pleased, and keep it to myself.
  • Would this approach work?

    What if one wrote a program that could emulate the tonal qualities and other characteristics of these mechanical instruments but Instead of using the exact digitized replicas of a given piano roll you hire musicians to produce a clean room interpretation of the music found on the piano role instead. This would be trivial for a well trained musician versed in a particular style of music and it would make it possible for everyone on the Internet to share the experience of hearing these mechanical instruments without physically being there.
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