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The Business Behind The Music

In the early 1900s, royalties from sales of sheet music produced a steady source of income to composers and music publishers. But radio changed all that. WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston sat down with a legal expert to learn how.

It was one thing to sit at a piano in a parlor and play a Stephan Foster tune from sheet music propped up on a music stand.  But a broadcast of music over the airwaves was a different thing entirely!  The advent of radio as a tool for entertainment set the music industry on its heels and brought about new interpretations of copyright law, just as the digital age has done. 

Listen to more of Meridee's interview with intellectual property lawyer, Gary Rosen.

MERIDEE DUDDLESTON: Collecting royalties from sales of sheet music could be controlled. But intellectual property lawyer Gary Rosen says making music available to everyone over the airwaves for free was as disruptive to the music industry as the Internet has been.  Back in the early 1900s, composers saw radio broadcasts as a threat to their creativity and livelihoods - a threat, Rosen emphasizes, that copyright law was designed to prevent.

GARY ROSEN:  Copyright is given, not as a gift to composers, but it’s meant to benefit the public by spurring creativity.

MUSIC: John Philip Sousa's The Washington Post
DUDDLESTON:  The music industry and popular composers like John Philip Sousa concluded that a radio broadcast was a public performance of their copyrighted works. They demanded that the radio industry begin to pay royalties. And they banded together to enforce their rights in a way that avoided a logistical nightmare.

ROSEN:  Their solution was to form this performing rights organization in which they pool their copyrights and then licensed them on what’s called a blanket basis.

DUDDLESTON: The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was the first blanket licensing organization.  Rosen says blanket copyright licenses for radio have worked the way they were intended.

ROSEN: And the fact that a mechanism was formed to actually enforce that performance right and create an income stream for composers has had a tremendous impact on the quality and variety of American music – popular, jazz, classical.

Gary A. Rosen is the author of Unfair to Genius: The Strange and Litigious Career of Ira B. Arnstein