Recording and Reproducing Music: Is it Piracy or just Bad Manners?

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Krystian Zimerman after a stellar performance at the Seligman Performing Arts Center in November 2004. Photo by S.L. Judd

Krystian Zimerman after a stellar performance at the Seligman Performing Arts Center in November 2004. Photo by S.L. Judd

Classical pianist, Krystian Zimerman, stormed off stage in the middle of his performance last week in Germany. Why? He noticed someone recording his performance and stopped the show.

James McAvoy stopped his performance as Macbeth to berate a member of the audience for trying to film his performance in April.

Can we stop audience members from using technology to record an artist’s performance? Or, for that matter, should we?

Piracy vs. Flattery in Art

Are we becoming too obsessed with rights? Have we lost the grand picture? Is not copying someone else’s work the highest form of flattery? I don’t mean making a work one’s own, but in the music world as well as in theatre, the creation – the ability to re-create the original work as the artist intended it – could this not also be seen as piracy? Does the work itself, the work being performed, in fact, belong to the performer?

Performers often perform works created by others. They applaud other people’s creations by sharing the creator’s genius. Even Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) ‘borrowed’ other people’s works because he liked them; because he applauded the other composer’s use of melody and counterpoint, because he saw the benefits and talents of the other composer’s creation.

Bach’s famous Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook (1725), for example, contains minuets, musettes, gavottes and more: keyboard compositions in Bach’s own handwriting that he presented to his second wife, Anna Magdalena. For centuries, experts believed that the works were all composed by Bach. It is only in light of recent research that we have learned that some of these works were actually composed by others: Colleagues of Bach’s, acquaintances and friends.

Experts established that the very well-known Minuet in G major, from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook, believed to have been composed by Bach because it is in Bach’s style of composition, was actually composed by Christian Petzold (1677-1733).

Sharing Music and Art

Title page from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook. This image is in the public domain due to expired copyright in the United States

Title page from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook. Image originally published by the Bach-Gesellschaft in Leipzig, 1895

It was not uncommon for composers in the Baroque era to share their music freely. How else would people learn their music, if no one knew about it, if no one had even heard it played? Performers would adopt specific musical compositions and add their own interpretations of style, ornamentation, and dynamics. Were these performers pirating the work by composers of their era?

The whole idea of ‘rights’ dates back to ancient times, including the Greek ideas about individual self, and Jewish Talmudic law, which recognized the moral rights of the creator.

The importance of ‘me’ and what ‘I’ create and ‘my’ rights have continued to develop over the centuries.

Twentieth and twenty-first century artists (musicians, writers, visual artists, dramatic/theatrical artists) have aided in the legislating and fine tuning the legal writ that defines the copyright, the rights of the artist. And the development of what is right and fair continues as technology injects its own equation of easy copying.

Easy Copying of Art: Ability Doesn’t Make it Right

Christiansen has a point. “As a matter of natural justice,” he writes. “I am instinctively on Zimerman’s side. Not only is his copyright being breached and his services stolen, but there is a matter of sheer bad manners involved – the recording was not only distracting to the pianist but also to other members of the audience. The offender should have been ejected from his seat and had his ticket rescinded.”

One would think that common courtesy, something that many twenty-first century people sadly lack, would dictate asking permission before making a recording. Technology is becoming increasingly invasive, but we can curb this particular issue with simplicity. When the request is made to turn off electronic devices, either do so or leave the audience. 


Christiansen, Rupert. Is Pirate music ever justified? (2013). The Telegraph. Accessed September 19, 2013.

Gunter. James McAvoy halts Macbeth to stop audience member filming. (2013). The Telegraph. Accessed September 19, 2013.

Selle, H. Open Content? Ancient Thinking on Copyright. (2008). Accessed September 19, 2013.

Alfred Publishing Co. Selections from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach for Piano: Piano Solos by Master Composers of the Period. (1999). Belwin Mills Publishing Corporation.

© Copyright 2013 Emily-Jane Hills Orford, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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