Citation Edit

White Smith v. Apollo Music, 209 U.S. 1 (1908) (full-text).

U.S. Supreme Court Proceedings Edit

A composer challenged piano roll technology[1] as a violation of a musical work copyright holder’s exclusive right to make copies of a work.[2] The Supreme Court ruled that the rolls were not copies of musical compositions, but rather component parts of a player piano machine.[3] Hence, there was no infringement of the composer’s copyright.[4]

Subsequent Developments Edit

Through legislation, Congress overturned White Smith in 1909 by granting to musical work copyright holder]s the right to control the “mechanical[5] reproduction” of their works.[6] As a consequence, piano rolls would be infringements of the musical composition copyright.

However, piano roll companies could still acquire the rights to make the rolls from musical work copyright holders. To prevent monopolization by a large manufacturer of piano rolls, Congress subjected the mechanical reproduction right to a compulsory license, allowing any manufacturer of piano rolls to mechanically reproduce a musical work in exchange for a payment of a royalty fee, without negotiating with the copyright holder for permission. Thus, the compulsory license for the reproduction of musical works is commonly referred to as a “mechanical license.”

References Edit

  1. Piano rolls are cylinder rolls with perforations that mechanically cause notes to be played on self-playing pianos. 209 U.S. at 9-10.
  2. Id. at 9.
  3. Id. at 12.
  4. Id.
  5. The term “mechanical” was derived from a determination that the reproduction is heard with the aid of a machine. Al Kohn & Bob Kohn, Kohn on Music Publishing 677 (3rd ed. 2002).
  6. Act of Mar. 4, 1909, ch. 320, §1(b), 35 Stat.1075.

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