Those new-fangled pianolas
The player piano (also called the pianola) was invented in the 1890s. Using paper scrolls with holes punched out into patterns it was able to play popular songs and old standards without a human hand on the keyboard. Player piano manufacturers refused to pay royalties for the songs they put on the rolls. Their argument was that because the marks on the rolls could not be read and had no meaning except as part of a machine, they had no copyright protection and there was no need to pay royalties. Composers who had previously made a living from royalties on sheet music were understandably upset.
In 1908 the US Supreme Court decided the case of White-Smith Music Publishing Company v Apollo Company 209 US 1. The action was brought to restrain infringement of the copyrights to two compositions published as sheet music: Little Cotton Dolly and Kentucky Babe.
The court quickly decided that the rolls were not copies or publications of the copyrighted music involved. “These perforated rolls are parts of a machine which, when duly applied and properly operated in connection with the mechanism to which they are adapted, produce musical tones in harmonious combination. But we cannot think that they are copies within the meaning of the Copyright Act,” said Justice Day delivering the court’s opinion.
This bizarre result was overturned when Congress extended the Copyright Act 1909 to cover all “mechanical” reproductions of songs, so that they could be copied as long as a small fee was paid. This was because a company called Aeolian, anticipating that White-Smith would be overturned, had bought up song rights so that they could copy them onto piano rolls. Aeolian’s competitors had complained to Congress about this attempt to corner the market. This prompted the first compulsory licence system in US copyright law.
The over-the-top Spanish prosecutors
A music student in the Spanish town of Puigcerdà, Laia Martin, decided that practice made perfect. For four years, from 2003 to 2007, she diligently practised five days a week, eight hours a day. One of her neighbours, Sonia Bonsom, found the piano music next door came to dominate her thoughts. She developed severe anxiety issues, including being unable to move her arm. Eventually, she moved house, but not before she had convinced the local authorities to prosecute Ms Martin and her parents (as accessories).
What made the headlines around the world was the approach taken by the prosecutors. They demanded that the three Martins be each sent to jail for six years for noise pollution, with another 18 months on top of that for inflicting psychological damage on Ms Bonsom – who gave evidence that she now hated pianos so much she was unable to even stand seeing them in a movie. The final sanction requested was that the Martins each be prohibited from playing the piano professionally for four years.
Sanity prevailed, however. The Catalonia Justice Tribunal found the Martins not guilty. It said there was no evidence that the piano playing was the direct cause of Ms Bonsom’s problems, and her claims were unreliable and exaggerated. Laia Martin is now a professional piano player.
The terrible outcome of piano playing in Japan
The Martins were lucky they weren’t living next to Matsuzo Ohama. Well known as strange in his habits – he carried a fishing rod everywhere – in 1974 he was under treatment for obsessive insensitivity to noise when the piano playing by his neighbours pushed him over the edge. He murdered a woman and her two daughters. At his trial his defence was that he believed the neighbours were trying to kill him with their scale-playing and he had acted in self-defence.
In the face of much outcry from psychiatrists (and also piano-haters) he was found competent to stand trial and guilty. He was sentenced to death. Japan carries out the death penalty infrequently – around three or four a year – and people can linger on death row even longer than in the United States.
Ohama caused consternation in 1977 when he found the noise in jail to be intolerable and abandoned all appeals, including strong psychiatric evidence that he was paranoid and not responsible for his actions. Ohama said he no longer wished to live and he looked forward only to death. It did not work. In 2014, aged 85, he was still alive after 40 years on death row.
Hang on, I’ve got a spare piano here…
Masterton, 1911, and the important task of purchasing alcohol for a concert being held by a rugby club. Percy Kent wasn’t a member of the club, but to conform to the licensing laws he was able to buy liquor if he paid five shillings for admission. Mr Kent did not pay; instead he lent his piano for the concert.
Somehow this came to the attention of the authorities and the club was found guilty in the Magistrate’s Court of illegally selling liquor to him. On appeal to the Supreme Court the issue was whether the piano transaction was permissible under the requirements of section 268 of the Licensing Act 1908: “meetings of an association, society or club bona fide formed for … outdoor games and exercises may supply the members and their guests at the expense of the association, society or club with refreshments including liquor.” Stout CJ found that the loan of the piano was a sale within the meaning of the legislation: “it was an equivalent given for something else”. However, section 268 was violated because it was not supplying of a guest but the supplying of a person who had bought his right of admission. The conviction was upheld. (Erickson v Cattanach (1911) 30 NZLR 492, 1 GLR 502).