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  • Technology and Below-the-Line Labor in the Copyfight over Intellectual Property
  • Andrew Ross (bio)

Kurt Vonnegut published his first novel, Player Piano (1952), at a time of high, dystopian anxiety about the abuse of technology by the state and by industrialists alike. The novel—which depicts an unsavory future in which new technologies make everyone's skills obsolete—dutifully channeled these public concerns. Player pianos do not really figure in the novel, but the title was an explicit allusion to their contribution, historically, to the technological disemployment of musicians. Nor was Vonnegut the only writer of his generation to draw attention to the mother of cultural automation. The threat posed to artists' livelihoods by the mechanical player piano was also shared by William Gaddis, who developed a lifelong obsession with the technology. 1

It is worth recalling briefly how and why the pianola, which had a short-lived but legally significant career, should have earned such a reputation as the original sinner. Its fin-de-siècle development was arguably the first salient example of an industrial technology designed, in large part, to cut the costs of creative labor. The subsequent pianola boom came at a time when the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) had scored some significant successes in negotiating wage scales and other conditions for its members. Indeed, the union's bristling response to this new technology marked the beginning of the AFM's long struggle against the automation of the jobs of live performers. By 1909, an estimated 330,000 of the pianos produced in the United States were mechanized, and by 1916, 65 percent of the market was still monopolized by player pianos. 2 The roll industry, which serviced the boom, had become one of the chief factors driving the music industries as a whole. While it was promoted as a great equalizer (create your own music in the home!), the pianola met the industry's need to find a less durable consumer product than the standard piano. Aside from the instrument's direct threat to live performers, the production of the player rolls created a low-wage manufacturing industry that offered compensatory factory-style employment to the displaced performers and others who could not find work in vaudeville or in one of the many [End Page 743] traveling dance orchestras of the time. As a result, the work of pianists was imperiled and degraded on all sides.

The pianist workforce took further hits with each new commercial technology for recording or broadcasting performances. While the advent of silent movies provided employment for piano accompanists in the theaters, the sound film process introduced by Vitaphone and the use of canned music in motion pictures would put them and thousands more movie and theater pit musicians out of work. 3 Jukeboxes and other uses of phonographs took a further toll. In the space of two decades, pianists who had been the mainstay of virtually all commercial and domestic entertainment were reduced to bit parts in the Fordist assemblies of orchestras and big bands. By midcentury, the piano was more ubiquitous in households as an item of furniture than as an active complement to the hearth. It is fair to say, in keeping with the spirit of Vonnegut's title, that the pianola set in motion a machinery of disemployment that continues to transform the craft of music making to this day.

But the player piano is more likely to be remembered, and cited, today as a key case study in copyright law. Pianists, after all, were not the only group whose livelihoods were threatened by the mercurial rise of these machines. Their use also deprived composers of profits from sheet music sales. Congress was asked to adjudicate whether the pianola companies had to pay copyright holders for permission to play their content. In their landmark decision of 1909, the legislators resolved that whoever wanted to record the music, and make subsequent copies of it, had to pay for the content, though not at a price set by the holder. Instead, the fee paid to the composer or the relevant copyright holder was set by law (at two cents for each copy).

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