13 February 1914: American artists get organised with ASCAP

ASCAP logo

In 1710 the British government enacted the first major copyright law, known as the Statute of Anne, granting authors up to 28 years of protection from plagiarism. After America became independent from Britain, the principle of copyright was embedded in the US Constitution, drawn up in 1787.

Three years later, the US government passed a specific copyright law along similar lines to the original British rules. The US maximum copyright term was extended to 42 years in 1831, but the big shift came in 1909.

This not only extended the term to 56 years, but broadened copyright to include music. At that time, sales of sheet music and early record players began to take off, enabling songwriters and composers to make money from selling their creations to the public.

To enforce their rights better, musicians and publishers formed the non-profit American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1914. During the 1930s ASCAP’s power steadily grew until it controlled the rights to most music performed on the radio.

ASCAP then attempted to move licensing from a fixed fee to a percentage of a radio station’s revenue. This led to a lawsuit that curtailed its power to discriminate between licensees (so they couldn’t charge one radio station more than another for playing the same music).

It also allowed buyers to challenge excessive fees in the courts. Despite this, ASCAP remains one of the three largest performing rights organisations in America (along with Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) and the for-profit SESAC), paying out $851m in royalties in 2013 alone.