A long history of legislation providing copyright protection to authors exists in the case of Great Britain, and England in particular. Although the full benefits of the legal system in operation when Chopin was publishing his music did not extend to the composer himself owing to his foreign citizenship and place of residence, his English publishers did derive benefit because Chopin assigned his rights to them.

For a work to gain protection, the law stipulated that it must first be published in England, prior to release in other countries. Furthermore, two formalities had to be undertaken no more than one month after publication: registration at the Company of Stationers (i.e. Stationers’ Hall), and the deposit of one exemplar at the British Museum. Several other libraries and institutions also had the right, upon request, to receive a copy within a period of no more than twelve months following publication.

This legislation was modified on various occasions during Chopin’s lifetime, namely in 1814, 1833 and 1842; the changes in question largely pertained to the period during which registration was to take place, the number of deposit copies and the period of protection. In the case of works published between 1814 and 1842, copyright protection lasted either twenty-eight years or until the author’s death if it followed thereafter. For works published after 1842, protection lasted either forty-two years or for seven years following the author’s death, whichever was more advantageous. When the law changed on 1 July 1842, the new period of protection was automatically extended for works still in copyright which had been published prior to that date, except where the rights were held by a publisher (as in the case of Chopin’s English editions) or by another person who had obtained them by certain means; in these cases the more limited original period of protection continued to apply unless an extension had been agreed between the author and the rights-holder.[1]

The English publishers were in a favourable position compared to their French counterparts, as they were not required to present an exemplar at the time of registration. As a result, they benefited from additional time in which to prepare their editions for printing and to introduce them to the market. The dates in the Stationers’ Hall registers therefore do not necessarily reflect the actual history of the commercialisation of Chopin’s music in England, instead representing the legacy of a practice intended to counteract piracy.

As in France, many of Chopin’s compositions were neither registered nor deposited in England, including Opp. 1–3, 5–12, 14–16 & 20, the Grand Duo Concertant and Hexameron. It is odd that, despite the registration of their titles, the English editions of Opp. 4 & 21–49 and the Variations on a German National Air are absent from the collection of the British Museum.[2] This was probably the result of negligence on the part of the publisher.

Questions about the copyright protection of Chopin’s works in England arise in two particular cases. The first concerns the editions of the Mazurkas Op. 63 and Waltzes Op. 64. Published in 1848 by Cramer, Beale & Co.,[3] these have generally been considered to be pirated versions. In fact, these works immediately entered the public domain in England following their release on the continent, given that no English firm had previously obtained the rights and registered the works as required. Like any other English publisher, Cramer, Beale & Co. was therefore in the position of printing these works on an entirely legal basis – as Wessel did too, with his own publication of these opuses soon after.[4] The second case is less well documented, preceding the one just described by nearly a decade. On 20 September 1838 The Musical World announced the release by Cocks of ‘Chopin’s five Mazurka’s [sic]’ and of ‘Three Nocturnos’.[5] The fact that no copies have been located could mean that the editions were never actually produced; however, because Wessel neglected not only to register Opp. 7 & 9 but also to deposit exemplars thereof, Cocks would have been free to publish his own scores had he wished to do so.

The variable periods of copyright protection arising from the changes in legislation referred to above led to the phased entry of Chopin’s works into the public domain in England. Wessel and his successors kept the original editions on the market until the beginning of the twentieth century; meanwhile other publishing houses began to bring out their own Chopin editions after January 1855, though at a slower pace than in France or the German states. The result was that only after 1900 would there be the variety of Chopin editions in England that had existed for some decades on the continent.

[1] A contemporary publication – Curtis 1847 – summarises and elaborates on the legislation.

[2] To fill these gaps the British Library has since acquired exemplars of the English first editions, but most are later impressions rather than original prints.

[3] During this period Chopin’s relations with Wessel broke down completely, and he therefore sought another publisher for Opp. 63–65. The name of the firm ‘Jullien & Co.’ appears on the TP of the Brandus edition of these works presumably because at one point it was the intended English publisher. Negotiations were eventually abandoned, however.

[4] The Waltzes Op. 64 Nos. 1 & 2 were also published by Leader & Cock in January 1853.

[5] The latter probably referred to Op. 9, and the former to either Op. 6 or Op. 7. The Mazurkas edition was most likely a reprinted continental score: the first impression of M. Schlesinger’s Op. 6 contains five mazurkas, as does that of the second impression of Kistner’s Op. 7 (whereas, at this time, Wessel’s editions of both opuses included four mazurkas each).