White-Smith Music Publishing Company v. Apollo Company
, 209 U.S. 1
(1908), was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States
which ruled that manufacturers of music rolls for player pianos
did not have to pay royalties
to the composers. The ruling was based on a holding that the piano rolls were not copies of the plaintiffs' copyrighted sheet music, but were instead parts of the machine that reproduced the music.
This case was subsequently eclipsed by Congress's intervention in the form of an amendment to the Copyright Act of 1909, introducing a compulsory license for the manufacture and distribution of such "mechanical" embodiments of musical works.
Issue and relevance
The main issue was whether or not something had to be directly perceptible for it to be a "copy." Naturally, hardly anyone could perceive music by looking at a roll of paper with holes in it. The 1976 Copyright Act
later clarified the issue, defining a "copy" as a "material object . . . in which a work is fixed . . . and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.
" This case remains relevant because the 1976 Copyright Act
makes an "otherwise inexplicable distinction between 'copies' and 'phonorecords.'