By , August 16, 2011.

The famed American composer colorfully mocks the idea of ascribing altruistic motives to the music pirate:

Sir, — With an avidity worthy the cause, I have read during my sojourn in these tight little islands everything that has come my way which has borne on the subject of music piracy.

Because of the laxity of your laws, and because of the perseverance of your music pirates, my royalties have gone a-glimmering. To use an anatomical expression current in my own country, I have been “getting it plump in the jugular.”

One or two of the arguments I have noted, which were in opposition to the publisher and composer, have not struck me as hilariously humorous, or even as faintly facetious.

To elucidate — I read in your journal some days ago, a communication in which the writer places the blame for the deplorable condition of the music trade here on the publisher, and points with argumentative finger to the fact that if the publisher had heeded the cry of the masses — whoever that nebulous body may be — and had sold his wares for less money, the music pirate would never have budded into existence. Inter alia, it would appear that the music pirate was called into the arena of activity to fill a long-felt want — to supply music at a cheaper price than the one at which the publisher cared to sell it — whether he could afford to or not.

It would appear under those conditions that the music pirate had a philanthropic mission. This mysterious and mercenary Messiah, noticing the’ dire distress of the tune-starved masses — whoever they may be — said, “I will save them. I will fill their melodic ‘little Marys’ with music at 2d. a meal. I will gorge them with gavottes, build them up with ballads, and make muscle with marches. They shall become comely with comedy conceits, and radiantly rosy with ragtime rondos — and all at 2d. a throw.”

And this beneficent pirate has waxed fat and saucy as he has hawked in the highways and byways spurious editions of him who is the favored of Melpomene and the boon companion of Orpheus. And I beg to ask, in words tinged with doubt and despair, where does the favored of Melpomene and the boon companion of Orpheus come in? The royalties of the “f. of M.,” and the “b.c. of O.” are like angels’ visits — few and far between.

Shall the sunlight depart from the soul of the sweet singer of melody? Shall the fount of the muse dry up, as it were? Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no surcease from sorrow for royalties that never materialize? Behold, O star-eyed Britannia, a suppliant at the bar of public opinion asking for justice, for your own and for your friends’ own.

John Philip Sousa, letter to the editor of the “Daily Mail”, 1905.


  1. I presume the piracy Sousa was talking about was of sheet music in England. Adrian Johns’s book on the history of piracy has a good chapter on this. Eventually the music publishers did find an effective legal weapon against the pirates: prosecution for criminal conspiracy, followed by prison sentences ‘with hard labour’. A useful precedent!

  2. Once again we are shown that history is indeed a Teacher of Life.

    It seems that the Internet – and modern technology in general – is so new and fresh and totally unlike anything that has gone before that we should shrug off any connection with our dreary, pre-online past and look to the bright new future looming ahead.

    Gee, isn’t it funny that all the conversations we’re having about the future today are the same ones we’ve already had in the past? Almost word for word.

    Thanks for posting this, Terry.

  3. That is just awesome. Thanks for posting it.

  4. You can find the full text from the original book, as well as the REST of what he wrote about it, here:

  5. Thanks for posting this. I loved it. I’m just sorry Sousa wasn’t a lyricist. It was brilliant!

  6. Pingback: Copyright and Derivative Arguments | Copyhype

  7. Thanks indeed for posting this. Long may Sousa’s words (and actions) march freely along with all the other composers’ voices for freedom of expression, the right to have their music faithfully represent their intent as to performance and presentation and the right to receive the earnings generated by their work without misrepresentation, false representation and piracy and interference in their art, science and trade. Can no one now remember who it was that gave the start-up pirates their start-up monies? Who it was that “sold” this concept of “free” promotion and publicity to artists in music in the first place? Look no further than the record company execs, the publishing execs, the managers, the agents and the attorneys who put their greed up against their own clients, totally ignoring any fiduciary responsibility or obligation to them.