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Economics of music publishing: copyright and the market


The paper argues that the paradigmatic shift from the sale of printed music to exploiting and managing musical rights that took place in music publishing during the early years of the twentieth century was due to the changing market rather than to changes in copyright law. On the one hand, copyright law was ineffectual in controlling piracy throughout the nineteenth century, and on the other hand, performing rights were ignored by music publishers for over 70 years; these points suggest that copyright was not the main reason behind the success of the industry. Rather than leading entrepreneurially (the current view of dynamism in the creative industries), publishers ‘followed the money’ and adapted their business models only when new streams of income from new forms of exploitation through sound recording, broadcasting and film became available as a result of exogenous technical progress. Publishers were locked-in to sales revenue as their business model, though when switching to the new business model of rights management took place, the costs seem not to have been greatly significant. The paper takes an historical approach to the development of music publishing viewed through the lens of present-day issues. The research has resonance for the transition from sales to licensing digital works that is taking place in the creative industries today and puts into perspective the relative significance of market forces and copyright law in the process.

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Fig. 1


  1. The UK music industry’s GVA was £4.1 bn. in 2014, to which music publishing contributed £410 m. (UK Music 2015).

  2. Songwriters include both lyricists and composers, each having copyright in their work. Copyright in lyrics seems not to have been so well established. This paper deals mostly with the musical composition.

  3. On this topic, see in particular Rosselli (1984) and Scherer (2004).

  4. The 1842 Act extended the previous copyright term of 28 years (or life if the author were still alive upon expiry) for works published in the UK to 42 years after publication or 7 years beyond the life of the author, whichever was the longest. The ‘la Sonnambula case’ in 1855 ruled that copyright in a work by a foreign national could be claimed in Britain only if the author was resident in the UK. The 1888 Copyright (Musical Compositions) Act extended the same coverage to foreign as to UK nationals and works following the signing of the 1886 Berne Convention. The Copyright Act 1911 set the copyright term to life of the author plus 50 years. The term in the UK is now life plus 70 years.

  5. Copying by hand also took place, especially in choirs, and was considered a nuisance by the publishers, but it was not illegal. Incidentally, it is still unlawful to photocopy sheet music in the UK. For a detailed exposition of the relative costs of printing technologies, see Scherer (2004, 161–2); also Humphries and Smith (1970), Introduction).

  6. Two shillings in old money, now 20p in nominal value: 2/- in 1910 was worth over £10 in 2014 terms. All conversions to present-day currency values in this article have been made using the Bank of England Inflation Calculator accessible on:

  7. The rate was to be reviewed at intervals by the Board of Trade; it was set at 5 % of the retail price of a record in 1911 (see Peacock and Weir 1975, 88–93, for full details). The compulsory licence was removed in the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act (the current law in the UK). The industry maintains the principle voluntarily, and the rate was 8.5 % in 2014.

  8. MCPS was taken over by the MPA in 1976, later forming part of PRS for music.

  9. Thereby depriving composers of a source of income from royalties (see Drysdale 2013).

  10. In this, PRS deviated from the continental performing right societies, which had been set up by composers.

  11. See Humphries and Smith (1970) for lists of music publishers, printers and engravers in the UK.

  12. This author charted prices for repeat sales, though there were relatively few of them and not sufficient for statistical analysis. The British Library holds the Puttick and Simpson auction reports; they are very hard to decipher, unfortunately.

  13. Scherer (2004) provides detailed analysis of the similar state of affairs in other European countries.


  15. See

  16. Ehrlich estimated that there were 2–4 million pianos in Britain in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

  17. He also wrote the tune of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ (1871) to words by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (still a popular hymn).

  18. The data have been collected in digital form by the British Library and include both song titles deposited with them and ones added by recent research, in all 293,098. Data are on publisher, size and number of pages and original price. The author is most grateful to Dr. Rupert Ridgewell, Curator of Music at Music Collections of the British Library, for supplying these data.

  19. Mutatis mutandis, UK publishers had offices in New York in order to obtain copyright protection for their works in the USA.

  20. Also from 1934 an ex gratia payment from PPL, Phonographic Performance Ltd., the collecting society for the record industry.

  21. In the EU by Council Directive 93/98/EEC of 29 October 1993 harmonising the term of protection of copyright and certain related rights and in the USA by the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998. Other countries have followed suit.

  22. Information from the MPA website

  23. Broadcast December, 2013: see

  24. Despite its questionable claim to copyright protection, which has now been relinquished. See

  25. The original work is usually rearranged, however, enabling the acquisition of a writing credit for the cover version, thus reducing the royalty to the owner of the original.


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The research for this article was financed by a grant from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Board for the project ‘Economic Survival in a Long Established Creative Industry: Strategies, Business Models and Copyright in Music Publishing’ (AH/L004666/1) at Bournemouth University. The author is grateful to the Music Publishers Association, PRS for Music and the British Library for their assistance and to attendees at Workshops in 2015 on Music Publishing, Copyright and Business Models at Bournemouth University and at Birkbeck College, University of London, for their comments. Thanks also to Ronan Deazley, Richard Osborne and Derek Scott for reading and commenting on the draft of this article, and for the rigorous referee comments. The opinions and interpretations expressed here are the author’s own.

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Towse, R. Economics of music publishing: copyright and the market. J Cult Econ 41, 403–420 (2017).

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  • Copyright
  • Business model
  • Music publishing
  • Creative industries