French law during the first half of the nineteenth century concerning copyright in artistic works was based on the decree of 19–24 June 1794 abolishing the royal privileges that previously had existed. It established the exclusive right of authors, composers and other artists throughout their lifetime to sell, provide to others to sell, or otherwise distribute their works, or to assign their rights to others in whole or in part. Nominated heirs or legatees benefited from the same rights during a ten-year period following an author’s death. This decree imposed an obligation on authors to deposit two exemplars of their work at the Bibliothèque nationale,[1] while also setting out penalties for the production of counterfeit or otherwise unauthorised versions.

Later amendments to the legislation led to changes in the number of obligatory deposit copies as well as their place of deposit, in addition to establishing a periodical entitled Bibliographie de la France intended to announce the release of new publications. Successive judgements from the courts helped to redress lacunae in the legislation, notably with regard to the rights of foreign authors whose work was published in France, as well as the necessary conditions for the protection of works first published outside French territory.

The legal situation in France during Chopin’s lifetime can therefore be summarised as follows. For a published work to enjoy full legal protection, an exemplar had to be deposited. A work originally published outside France could also benefit from such protection, but only if a copy thereof was deposited before an unauthorized edition appeared in France (generally the latter would be a pirated version of the original, foreign print). The registers of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and of the dépôt légal reveal that copies of Chopin’s Opp. 1, 2, 5–9, 12, 16, 17 & 42, and of the Grand Duo Concertant for Piano and Cello, the Mazurka dedicated to Emile Gaillard and Hexameron[2] were never deposited; as a result, it would have been possible for contemporary publishers to reprint them without restriction. This was indeed the fate of the Rondo Op. 1 and Variations Op. 2, as well as the Polonaise Op. 3 (although its publication history is somewhat different), all of which were released by several Paris publishers while Chopin was still alive.[3]

At the end of 1859 Chopin’s works entered the public domain in France, and soon after new editions of his music started flooding the market. They became direct competitors to the original editions, which eventually succumbed to commercial pressures although a number remained available into the early twentieth century.

[1] The name of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (as it is known today) evolved with the various changes of political system in France since 1789 – hence its successive designations as ‘Bibliothèque impériale’, ‘Bibliothèque royale’, etc.

[2] A collaborative set of variations by Liszt, Thalberg, Pixis, Henri Herz, Czerny and Chopin, composed to raise funds for Italian refugees. Liszt’s contribution to the work was the most extensive.

[3] For discussion of the multiple French editions see France under Chopin’s publishers.