Whose Music is it Anyway? How We Came to View Musical Expression as a Form of Property

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2004


Many participants in the music industry consider unauthorized transmissions of music files over the Internet to be theft of their property. Many Internet users who exchange music files reject this characterization. Prompted by the dispute over unauthorized music distribution, this Article explores how those who create and distribute music first came to look upon music as their property and when in Western history the law first supported this view. By analyzing the economic and legal structures governing music making in Western Europe from the classical period in Greece through the Renaissance, the Article shows that the law first granted some exclusive rights in the Middle Ages, when musicians' guilds enjoyed the exclusive right to perform music in medieval cities, but that the concept of music as a form of property was not established until early music publishers received exclusive rights in their publications during the Renaissance. The Article concludes with thoughts about how this history should influence the way we address the current controversy concerning uses of music on the Internet.