Victor Herbert and ASCAP

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Today we observe an important anniversary for what we now call “intellectual property.”

On today’s date in 1914, ASCAP—the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers—was founded in New York City. Its first director was the composer Victor Herbert, who, the story goes, once heard a hotel orchestra playing some of his music. Now, you might think Herbert would be pleased, but actually he was furious—as his music was supposedly protected by copyright — and Herbert realized he wasn’t receiving royalty payments from the hotel or the performers.

The U.S. copyright law of 1897 SHOULD have prevented this. Long before Muzak systems, live musical performances in commercial settings like hotels and restaurants were very common, but enforcement of copyright and the collection of royalty payments woefully rare. Helping to found ASCAP was Herbert's way of improving the chances that his fellow composers, songwriters, lyricists, and music publishers could earn a decent living from their creative works.

Herbert was 55 in 1914, and a string of musical hits such as “Babes in Toyland” and “Naughty Marietta” had made him the toast of Broadway. Herbert was the early 20th century equivalent of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber — and he would probably be gratified to know that both Sondheim and Lloyd Webber are current ASCAP members.