- Litigating the Musical Magazine: The Definition of British Music Copyright in the 1780s
Although it was not the first music periodical to appear in England, the New Musical Magazine, published by Harrison and Co. from December 1783 to 1786, has been called “a publishing landmark.” 1 Scholars acknowledge that the periodical is important because Harrison and Company used it to offer cheap editions of works by such composers as Thomas Augustine Arne, Handel, and Purcell. 2 Unlike literary periodicals, the New Musical Magazine almost exclusively contained sheet music; each number appeared in oblong folios, with fourteen to twenty pages of engraved music and an additional four pages of letterpress comprising parts of An Universal Dictionary of Music. It contained vocal-keyboard scores, which included favorite excerpts from well-known musical compositions that would most appeal to the general public. Because the periodical included a title page and table of contents for each work, purchasers could, for a fraction of the price charged by music sellers, own the most popular parts of works like the Messiah, Comus, and The Beggar’s Opera, even when they appeared over several numbers of the periodical. 3
Music sellers were understandably concerned about such periodicals, for they threatened to damage sales of their most profitable works. In fact, documents recently discovered in the Public Record Office, London, reveal that several acted swiftly to suppress the publication of an earlier version of the New Musical Magazine when Harrison and Drury attempted to launch it in November 1783. They filed suits in the Courts of Exchequer and Chancery [End Page 122] to harass the booksellers and to prevent them from reprinting works still protected by the Copyright Act of 1710 (the Act of Anne). While the music sellers did not ultimately stop Harrison and his partner from publishing a musical periodical, the suits are interesting for several reasons. First, they provide details about the publication and sale of the Musical Magazine and new information about the publishing history of Arne’s opera Artaxerxes. Second, they document some of the difficulties that arose after 1777, when music sellers, composers, and their legal representatives tried to apply a law designed primarily for literary works to musical compositions. Finally, the suits explore significant questions about the ownership of intellectual property in the 1780s: in particular, how to evaluate competing claims by proprietors, what the most reliable means to prove ownership were, and who controlled the reversionary rights when the initial fourteen-year copyright of a literary or musical work expired.
Copyright in 1783 and the Musical Magazine
Harrison and Drury’s effort with the Musical Magazine represented one of the first major threats to music sellers after the landmark decision in Bach v. Longman & Lukey (1777), in which the Court of King’s Bench ruled that music was a type of writing governed by the Copyright Act of 1710. 4 For a variety of reasons, music sellers responded vigorously to the challenge posed to their rights and profits.
First, Harrison and Drury competed with music sellers by undercutting the prices the music trade charged for the same music. Each issue of the New Musical Magazine sold for 1s. 6d., and a musical work appeared in no more than ten numbers; thus, their editions of these musical compositions, adapted for the voice and harpsichord, cost far less than the originals issued by music sellers. For example, they offered the choruses in score of Handel’s Messiah over five numbers of the magazine, at a price of 7s. 6d., whereas the editions published by the music trade sold for £2.2.0. On the back of most issues of the magazine, Harrison and Drury emphasized the low cost of their publications by printing a list of the music published in previous issues, contrasting their prices with those charged by music sellers for the same compositions. According to their advertisement, if customers purchased all of the first 108 numbers of the New Musical Magazine, they would pay only £13.2.0 for compositions sold by their competitors for £29.10.0—less than half the regular price. Harrison and Drury designed their periodical so that separate issues could be...