Thomas Edison, Intellectual Property and the Recording Industry

By George Ziemann 6/03/03

Chapter 3 -- The Industry Evolves

I didn't expect this story to get interactive, but it certainly has already. Those interested in several comments about the story so far are invited to visit Slashdot. I'm going to let all of those comments speak for themselves. It actually saves me a lot of discussion. I'd also like to thank Alert Readers Henrik Ingo and Michael Shoshani for their comments, which have been integrated into this chapter.

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I would like to say that I don't personally think Edison was a monopolistic bastard, as others have phrased it. I also don't think he was really a control freak. All of the descriptions of his working environment that I have read indicated that those who worked for him, seemed to feel as if they were creating something. They were working on worthwhile products. Most things he sold off after they were established and moved on to something else.

Edison landed in New York not even knowing what a bank was really for. Scored $40,000 on his first sale. And I don't have the exact figures, but he sold off General Electric for much less than he probably could have negotiated. He gave the fluoroscope away.

The only point I was really trying to make with the Chapter 2 of the story, and that some of you might have missed was this -- Of all the things he invented, or others invented for him, the phonograph was his favorite and perhaps only eclipsed by moving pictures and then motion pictures with sound. It seems to have been his personal love, his obsession.

He just went a little too far. He lost perspective and became more concerned about stopping the competition than forging ahead.

From a combination of sources, here is a quick timeline of the next major changes and important events during the evolution of the industry in the first half of the 20th century. We'll have to go back and plug in a couple of events from the last chapter, just so you see how this all fits together.

1909 -- IMP (Independent Motion Picture Company) was founded by Carl Leammle, and eventually consumed by Universal in 1912, with the intention of protesting against the Motion Picture Patents Company.

1911 -- National Phonograph Company changed to Thomas A Edison Inc. and manufactured Edison Phonographs and records until 1929. The Edison Company continued to make office equipment until 1973, and wax cylinder recording blanks until 1960. (See notes below).

1912 -- US government brings an anti-trust suit against the MPPC, the resistance of the independents had broken the monopoly.

1913 -- Edison introduced the first talking moving pictures.

1914 -- Earl Hurd introduces the concept of animation with a fixed background and clear cellulose overlays.

1915 -- MPPC was declared illegal and was dissolved. Edison appointed president of the U.S. Navy Consulting Board.

Here's a slightly different version that came from Michael Shoshani, of Chicago, IL.

Once Edison regained control of his patents, he bulldozed North American and it ceased to exist. He started the Edison Phonograph Co (later Thomas A. Edison, Inc) to sell his machines, and that took care of one half of what had been North American. The American Graphophone Co was eventually subsumed into the Columbia Phonograph Co. and that took care of the other half of North American. It was de-chartered and dissolved by Edison once he got control of it.

The Graphophone Co interests are owned today by Sony Music.

Edison Records, as a label, ceased to exist when Thomas Edison shut down the entertainment phonograph division in 1929. His company and its successors contined to produce dictation machines and cylinders (later flexible belts and red discs) up until the late 1950s or early
1960s, but there were no commercial record releases, nor was there an Edison recording studio.

The Edison National Historic Site did not absorb the business end of McGraw-Edison, which was the successor company that only recently was broken up into smaller pieces and sold off. And even then, as could be determined, all of the old Edison releases were public domain, and there wasn't an active trademark on the Edison name for sound recordings.

The Edison interests in NAPC started their own marketing organization once NAPC was done away with, and Edison's legitimate line of succession goes to this day to the McGraw-Edison Corporation - which still exists, and still owns the Edison trademark on a number of kitchen and household appliances...although, curiously, none on anything phonographic. Those trademarks were allowed to expire after their last renewals, which were around 30-35 years ago.

The oldest existing phonograph company today is Columbia, today owned by Sony Music. Columbia started outside the North American patent pool and was the only recording/phonograph company not directly affected by its downfall. The second oldest organization would
probably be the various branches of what used to be The Berliner Gramophone Company, which started in 1895 and sired/spun off the
Victor Talking Machine Company (today owned by BMG Music), EMI, and Deutsche Grammophon. These are all businesses that have continued in one form or another for well over a century, and have never stopped.

And an interesting observation from Henrik Ingo, from Finland, I believe.

It's funny that the record labels and especially the movie industry don't see the irony of history. The Hollywood companies that are now trying to use every possible and impossible way to hinder the evolution of the Internet, are the very same independent companies that 100 years ago moved to Hollywood to be out of reach of Edisons agents.

Anyhow, I once wrote on copyright, and thought to enlighten you on the fact that the word(s) "pirate copy" was already used in the 16th century for books printed outside the control of the writer. Or actually the publishers used the word when they talked about pbulishers who cloned something they had first published.

It's interesting to know, that even then it was the publishers (not the authors) that pushed for copyright legislation and their view was that copyright protection is something given to books published by authorised publishers. (Sounds familiar?) The legislators settled for the idea that copyright belongs to the author.

(The above is according to and and

1928 -- Walt Disney released Steamboat Willy. But even I will not discuss Mr. Eisner's pet. That's another legal issue that I'd rather not touch myself. At least not this week..

Fast Forward

As for the rest of the recording industry's history, well, those that care already know. Those that have escaped may start talking about it soon. It's not my story to tell. Maybe Eddie Vedder will talk some more. Maybe tomorrow. Who knows?

You DO know that Pearl Jam became a true bona fide "unsigned band" again last week?

Next, I write about what I intended to talk about before I stumbled into the rest of the story.

More to Come.

Chapter 1-- The Dawn of Recorded Music and the First Pirates
Chapter 2 -- Music, Movies and Monopoly
Chapter 3 -- The Industry Evolves
Chapter 4 -- Copyright and the Grand Illusion
Chapter 5 -- Bringing the Past Into the Present


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Other MP3 stories:
Copy Protection and the Reasonable Man
Review: Neuros MP3 Digital Audio Computer

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