Copyright law: The history of an early American tunebook

February 9, 2021
Ray Heigemeir
View of New Haven in 1786, published as a reproduction of the original woodcut by Daniel Bowen

A view of New Haven, 1786

Guest blogger: Matthew Gilbert

Andrew Law is perhaps most famous for receiving the first authorial copyright in the United States in 1781, just 5 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and 8 years before the Constitution would be ratified in 1789. As a part of the first group of Yankee tunesmiths, along with William Billings, Jeremiah Ingalls, and others, Law and his contemporaries helped shape the history of American music-making, particularly within the shape-note tradition, as their tunebooks contained some of the first music published or written by the citizens of a young, new country. Andrew Law was responsible for about 30 of the more than two hundred tunebooks published independently in the United States between the end of the Revolutionary War and 1820, according to Richard Crawford.[1]

Law was born in Connecticut in 1749, but little is known about his early years, except that his mother passed away in 1758. His family moved to a small town a few miles north of New Haven in 1762, and in 1771, instead of enrolling at nearby Yale, Law enrolled at Rhode Island College, now known as Brown University. His brother, William Law, published and printed all of Law’s books.

First page of The Musical Primer

First page of The Musical Primer

Stanford’s Rare Book collection contains a copy of Law’s Art of Singing in Three Parts, a pedagogical tool for vocal harmony published serially between 1792 and 1796, with a later shape-note edition published in 1803. Confusingly, Law published the third part, The Musical Magazine, first in 1792; then came the first part, The Musical Primer, in 1792; finally, Law published The Christian Harmony, the middle part, in two volumes in 1794 and 1796, to complete the work. Andrew Law’s cousin, Samuel Andrew Law, was instrumental in helping Law get the work published, and, according to Crawford, was even responsible for giving Law the idea to separate the work into three parts. In a letter from Samuel to Law in 1794, Samuel claimed that the division of a work into volumes was essentially “arbitrary,” whereas the three works that comprised The Art of Singing were “distinct and separate, but which, when taken together, conspire to form a perfect whole.”[2]

First page of The Art of SingingFirst page of The Art of Singing

Law envisioned The Art of Singing as a means to not only improve vocal pedagogy, but also “to reform American taste in sacred music,” according to Crawford.[3] Unfortunately for Law, his efforts would turn out to be quite prescient, as the sacred music reform movement of the early 19th century, led by Lowell Mason, would push for a return to European musical conventions and styles in their own attempt to reform American musical taste, largely dismissing the work of Law and his contemporaries.[4] However, in spite of Mason’s best efforts, though in some ways as a result of those efforts, the shape-note singing tradition continued to be practiced in rural communities across America for centuries and survives still today. For members of the Stanford community who may be interested in this American tradition of music-making, a local group of shape-note singers, Bay Area Sacred Harp, gets together and sing hymns almost every week, year-round.

Examples of Law’s music pedagogy system from The Musical Primer

Examples of Law’s music pedagogy system from The Musical PrimerExamples of Law’s music pedagogy system from The Musical Primer

Law, along with Noah Webster, would be instrumental in pushing for Connecticut to pass the first state copyright law in 1783. However, it was a “legislative privilege” passed by the Connecticut legislature in October 1781 that would secure Law his claim to the first authorial copyright in the history of the United States. Strangely, according to scholars Oren Bracha and Irving Lowens, the work to which Law was granted exclusive publication rights may not have actually existed. In early 1781, Law filed a lawsuit alleging that his works were being published illicitly by unknown persons using Law’s name, thereby robbing Law of his due profit. He asked the Connecticut legislature to grant him the exclusive rights to publish forty-two hymns and nine anthems; however, as Bracha writes, “[t]he Connecticut legislature may have believed that Law published or intended to publish a collection encompassing all the enumerated tunes…[i]n reality Law published the tunes in several separate works.”[5] Lowens has written an excellent article, cited below, that details this misunderstanding, and focuses specifically on how a misunderstanding in the Connecticut legislature ended up creating a mythical monograph, a portion of which is worth quoting in full:

“In the petition he submitted to the Connecticut General Assembly on 15 October 1781, requesting a patent on a list of tunes and anthems, Law made use of the phrase, “Collection of the best & most approved Tunes,” to describe a work of his, the Select Number of Plain Tunes (n.p., n.d.), which he complained had been pirated. The General Assembly borrowed the phrase for the bill in form which was drawn up as a consequence of Law's memorial (in the process, amplifying it slightly into “Collection of the best & most approved Tunes & Anthems for the Promotion of Psalmody”) but they used it to describe a hypothetical tune book containing Law’s forty-two tunes and nine anthems which they thought had either appeared or was about to appear. In neither Law’s petition nor the bill in form was the phrase used as a book title. The descriptive phrase became a book title in the hands of an unknown clerk who made an official copy of the act resulting from Law’s memorial, perhaps for Law himself. On the otherwise blank verso of this document (owned by Yale University), the clerk enclosed the legislature’s phrase in quotation marks as an identifying tag—and a fictitious book was born. The Yale transcript appear to be the source of the Collection of the Best and Most Approved Tunes and Anthems for the Promotion of Psalmody supposedly issued in 1781 and listed in Evans as No. 17201.

“The bibliographical situation was still further complicated when, relying upon the Evans entry, an unsuspecting cataloguer at the New York Public Library described a copy of the Select Harmony lacking title page as the hitherto-unlocated Collections of the Best and Most Approved Tunes and Anthems. This was an understandable error in the light of the fact that the incomplete copy does differ considerably from a complete Select Harmony in the New York Public Library. However, the printing history of the Select Harmony is more complex than the cataloguer knew, and the incomplete copy is nothing more than a 1779 Select Harmony. It differs from the complete copy so markedly because that happened to be a 1782 edition. In such a fashion, a ghost achieves corporeality.”[6]

Perhaps even more troubling, Law had not actually composed most of the tunes whose publication rights he was seeking. In fact, the only tunes thought to have been composed by Law were those included over a decade later in the Musical Primer, the first part of his Art of Singing, according to Richard Crawford, who points to the fact that the only time Law refers to himself as a composer is in a letter from 1792 in which he writes, “I want to be some where in a sittuation [sic] that I can improve myself and compose some that will answer to publish.”[7] Even within the Art of Singing, Law’s supposed original compositions make up just a fraction of the complete set of tunes. Following the conventions of his time, and particularly inspired by the advice of his cousin in that same 1794 letter to include, “that alone which is best calculated to ensure the work success,” Law was interested in publishing the popular music of his time.[8] However, still in keeping with the conventions of his time, Law changed the names of the tunes to the names of neighboring towns. Additionally, while one may initially find the same tunes popping up throughout various early American tunebooks, upon closer inspection, one will find that they are similar only in name: compilers of tunebooks interchanged names and melodies to their own liking, so that a tune called “Oxford” in one book may be called “New London” in another.

Comparison of the tune “Mear” in standard notation and shape-note notation

Comparison of the tune “Mear” in standard notation and shape-note notationComparison of the tune “Mear” in standard notation and shape-note notation

The Art of Singing in Three Parts is an invaluable historical object, though one that may open up more questions than it can answer. The songs contained within it, whoever originally wrote them, are some of the oldest pieces of American music, published less than a decade after the end of the Revolutionary War. Perhaps most interesting for modern day audiences, early American tunebooks form the basis of our nation’s copyright history, with one of Law’s works becoming the earliest example of judicially recognized intellectual property in America, two years before the first state copyright law was passed in Connecticut and, ironically, without ever actually being published.


Matthew Gilbert Matthew Gilbert is an ethnomusicology student whose research focuses on instrument production and music-making at the end of the world. You can listen to the noises he makes with guitars and with friends at


Works Cited

Bracha, Oren. “Commentary on Andrew Law's Petition 1781,” in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, 2008.

Crawford, Richard. Andrew Law, American Psalmodist. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968.

Crawford, Richard. “Massachusetts Musicians and the Core Repertory of Early American Psalmody,” in Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. 54 (1985), 582-629.

Lowens, Irving. “Copyright and Andrew Law,” in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 53, no. 2 (1959), 150-159.

Music, David W. “Tunes by Lowell Mason and Thomas Hastings in Southern United States Shape-Note Tune Books of the Early Nineteenth Century.” In the Journal of Musicological Research, vol. 26, no. 4 (2007), 325-352.

[1] Richard Crawford, Andrew Law, American Psalmodist (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), xv-xvi.

[2] Crawford, Andrew Law, American Psalmodist, 114.

[3] Crawford, Andrew Law, American Psalmodist, 104.

[4] David W. Music, “Tunes by Lowell Mason and Thomas Hastings in Southern United States Shape-Note Tune Books of the Early Nineteenth Century,” in the Journal of Musicological Research, vol. 26, no. 4 (2007), 325.

[5] Bracha, Oren. “Commentary on Andrew Law's Petition 1781,” in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, 2008.

[6] Irving Lowens, “Copyright and Andrew Law,” in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 53, no. 2 (1959), 158-159.

[7] Crawford, Andrew Law, American Psalmodist, 110.

[8] Crawford, Andrew Law, American Psalmodist, 116.