Sean M. O'Connor, Patented Electric Guitar Pickups and the Creation of Modern Music Genres, 23 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 1007 (2016), https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/faculty-articles/195
George Mason Law Review
guitars, music, patents
This Essay provides an overview of how patents played a core role in developing world-changing musical genres. This may be surprising, as normally copyright law is associated with incentivizing advances in the creative arts. But as this Conference’s theme [The IP Platform: Supporting Invention and Inspiration] and presentations emphasize, the whole range of intellectual property (“IP”), especially when viewed as a platform, supports innovation across the spectrum of human ingenuity and creativity.
This Essay is also intended to be read in conjunction with a viewing of the live-music demonstration of how pickups transformed popular music, delivered at the Conference and available at the Center for Protection of Intellectual Property’s YouTube channel.
Part I of this Essay explores how the electric guitar pickup emerged out of the turn-of-the-century invention gold rush in sound amplification and reproduction by electromagnetic means. Part II then explains how limitations of this new technology, combined with limits of the tube amplification of the time, created the unusual tonal aspects of the electric guitar. It also considers how patents were crucial to creating incentives for professional manufacturers to enter into commercial production of sophisticated gear that most guitar players could not—or would rather not—build at home for themselves.
Part III argues that this new sonic palette inspired not only rock and rollers, but also a wide range of musicians and artists to modify existing genres of music, as well as to create entirely new ones. In this way, the “bugs” or limitations of this new sonic technology turned into “features” that inspired and defined new musical genres.
Part IV reveals a surprising twist: even as far more accurate and “natural” sounding amplification systems were developed for acoustic guitars in the late twentieth century, the electric guitar sound was so well entrenched as its own kind of instrument that today’s acoustic and electric guitars simply sit side by side as related-but-different instruments.
Finally, the Conclusion sums up the role of the patent system in incentivizing the musical and technical geniuses who conceived and reduced to practice what would become not only a major new family of musical instruments, but which also led to important new musical genres. It also points out the happy, historical happenstance that the development of the electric guitar represents: if better—meaning more accurate—guitar amplification systems had been possible in the 1930s-50s, the distinctive growl and vocal tone of the electric guitar, as well as so many of the most popular new music genres of the twentieth century, may not have been created.