The Last Time the Cubs Won … There Was Plenty of IP Around



The last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, the Supreme Court was considering whether those who made a device to play music were infringing on the copyrights of those who wrote the music.

Sound familiar? While a whole lot has changed in intellectual property since 1908, some core questions—such as making sure the rights of musical composers are protected—have remained constant.

In 1908, few, if any, could have envisioned streaming music over the internet. Or even just the internet.  That year, the high court considered music rolls for use in player pianos, ruling that they didn’t infringe the copyright interests of composers (White-Smith Music Publ. Co. v. Apollo Co., 209 U.S. 1). The reason? The court found the rolls weren’t copies of the sheet music that was owned by copyright holders.

It was in 1908—the last time the Cubs won a championship before ending Major League Baseball’s longest-running drought with an 8-7 victory over the Cleveland Indians in 10-innings Wednesday—that Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt decided to overrule the decision with what became the Copyright Act of 1909, Pub. L. 60-349, 35 Stat. 1075. The 1909 law was the first time U.S. copyright law had been comprehensively overhauled since the nation’s first copyright law, the Copyright Act of 1790.

The 1909 law created the first compulsory license in U.S. copyright law by including language that said any person could make “mechanical reproductions” of a musical composition by paying a royalty of 2 cents each. Under a compulsory license, which a copyright owner can’t refuse, a licensee must comply with standards set by the government, including royalty payments. 

This license is still, somewhat anachronistically, known as the “mechanical license” and exists as Section 115 of the Copyright Act of 1976. These days, it’s seldom used for player piano rolls but is still relevant for some uses of music, such as ringtones.

Copyright’s not the only IP discipline that dates to the last Cubbies’ championship before this week’s.

Several trademarks familiar today were registered with the Patent and Trademark Office in 1908, including ones for Stroh’s beer, Dictaphone, Lea & Perrins—of Worcestershire sauce fame--Marlboro cigarettes, Thermos double-walled glass vessels and Vogue magazine.

In patents, what was then known as the Patent Office issued 32,757 patents in 1908. Over 600 of those were issued during the week the Cubs won.

U.S. Patent No. 875,679 was issued Jan. 7, 1908, to Frederick H. Alling of New Haven, Conn., and titled “Clutch for Reliefographs,” related to a printing process of the time. The last patent to be issued in 1908 went to George C. Wortman. That was U.S. Patent No. 908,435 on a “Dumping Push Can” for use on railway cars where cargo is loaded at one point and dumped elsewhere.