While watching some of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, I have heard repeatedly (including the extras on the DVDs) that Gilbert and Sullivan had a serious problem with people, specifically in the United States, pirating their operas. There were many unauthorized performances. None of them were paying royalties obviously but they were also of very low quality.

My question is, did they ever try to fight piracy in those days? If yes, then what were the techniques? Were they successful? Or was copyright/trademark protection law the only recourse for Gilbert and Sullivan, if and when a perpetrator would be caught?

  • 2
    They stayed off the high seas. Bwahahahaha!
    – sanpaco
    Sep 15, 2016 at 21:35
  • 1
    Charles Dickens and Winston Churchill had similar trouble with piracy. I'd guess that until there were agreements between countries about enforceability of copyright, and agreed notions of its scope, that it was a free-for-all, with "name and shame" as the only weapon. I don't know enough of the history of these things to really give an answer, but that's my understanding of the context, in case it helps the discussion
    – Angst
    Sep 17, 2016 at 17:24

2 Answers 2


In the begining of 19th century US law (copyright act of 1790) protected only American authors.(1) There were no international copyright agreements between the US and other countries, making it nearly impossible for a foreign author to protect his work in that country.

One of the most victimized authors was Charles Dickens, whose novels were mercilessly pirated in the US, so much so that Dickens commented about the problem when lecturing in the US (in 1842) and in his writings (1),(2). The opposite was also true, i.e. American authors were also pirated in Britain.

Eventually some international agreements appeared and registry offices for the protection of intelectual property were created in the US, so theoritically a foreign author could register and have their work protected in the US. However the system was virtually ineffective and copyright violations were common, even about US owned intellectual property.

In an effort to protect their intellectual property in this legal void, sometimes companies introduced a few false details in reference works, so that if the work was copied, the original source could be traced back. This was common practice for example with maps (an extremely valuable asset in a country still in an settling phase). (3)

In performance arts, the public performance of a piece (song, stage play, musical) was (and still is, by the way) a form of ascertain one's authorship. Gilbert and Sullivan tried to use that in their favor with several strategies, without success (see Chris Sunami answer and (1) for more information)

In summary, copyright legislation was sparse and mostly uncoordinated betweeen countries until the 20th century. Note that only in 1988 did the US only adhered to the Berne convention (which exists since 1886) (4).

Copyright infrigment cases were very rare in until mid 20th century. Only 6 claims of music copyright infrigement are court filed in the US before 1900 and only about 40 in the first half of the 20th century (5). When historically we know that there were so many violations and concern from authors, that clearly shows that legal protection mechanisms were weak, discredited or both.

Internet sources:
(1) Edward Samuels, The Illustrated Story of Copyright
(2) Charles Dickens: Struggles For Copyright Laws
(3) This wikipedia page explains the concept of "fake entries", but this video by the author John Green does it in a much funnier way.
(4) A Brief History of Copyright
(5) Music copyright infringment resource; this resource is (self admittedly) incomplete, but even so the low number of reported cases is significant.

  • Thanks a lot @BCdotWEB, my English let's me down sometimes (or I try to give steps larger than my legs :-). The similarity with the Portuguese "castigar" (punish, or beat up) induced me in error. I'll correct the word. Sep 15, 2016 at 10:28

The answer is "without much success." They did, however, try a number of things, including premiering Pirates of Penzance in New York, rather than London, refusing to publish a full score of Iolanthe, and keeping Mikado entirely secret. None of these worked, and the American courts almost inevitably sided with the pirates.

Their only real recourse was the fact that their own productions were much higher quality than the imitations.

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