Were the “Pirates” of the Pirates of Penzance Named After Copyright Piracy?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to opera and operettas and whether they are true or false.

OPERA URBAN LEGEND: The Pirates of Penzance was named as such after copyright piracy.

Librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan formed one of the most famous musical partnerships this side of Rodgers and Hammerstein with their operas in the late 19th Century.


After a few modest hits with their operettas Trial By Jury (1874) and The Sorceror (1877), Gilbert and Sullivan had their first international smash hit with their operetta H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), which was a comic opera about the danger of incompetent people rising to high positions (while having some fun with the British Navy, as well).

The problem with having an international hit in 1878 was that British copyright laws, naturally, did not extend into the United States of America, so American productions of the opera took place without the permission of Gilbert and Sullivan (and certainly without any payment to the pair).

In fact, the first Copyright statute in the United States specifically stated:

nothing in this act shall be construed to extend to prohibit the importation or vending, reprinting or publishing within the United States, of any map, chart, book or books, written, printed, or published by any person not a citizen of the United States, in foreign parts or places without the jurisdiction of the United States. . . .

That basic law was still in place by the end of the 19th Century.

So naturally, Gilbert and Sullivan were quite irritated that their success did not translate into extra money from America.

They brought an “official” production to the United States in 1879, but still, they were so angered by the “piracy” of their work that they specifically wrote their next opera as a response to those pirates.

That opera was called, of course, The Pirates of Penzance…


It, too, was a smash success, and in an attempt to out-maneuver the “pirates,” Gilbert and Sullivan gave a small performance of the work in London on December 30, 1879 (to preserve British copyright) then debuted the work in New York City the next day to acquire the U.S. copyright.

However, it was determined that since it was first copyrighted in Britain that it still did not qualify for a U.S. copyright.

This happened to every other opera Gilbert and Sullivan produced, even as they tried out more and more elaborate methods of acquiring U.S. copyright. For instance, they did not even PUBLISH the orchestration for The Mikado, figuring it was better to not make money off of sales of the sheet music than to allow the orchestration to just be stolen. Instead, they brought over an American musician and had him do a piano version of The Mikado and had him copyright THAT. That was probably the closest they ever came to actually securing a U.S. copyright, but even then, the courts said that the libretto was not copyrighted and that anyone could just do The Mikado with their own orchestrations (stating that the similar orchestrations by the defendant were non-infringing).

Sullivan wrote at the time of his dismay that “every miserable thieving penniless scoundrel in the States” could do a production of The Mikado.

Don’t get me wrong, though, Gilbert and Sullivan were making money in the United States with “official” productions of all of these works, and their “official” productions were of a much better quality than the knock-offs ( John Philip Sousa, for one, did a number of knock-offs, and he admitted that the original orchestrations were much better than his). It is just that they were not paid for the knock-offs, and it was the knock-offs that proliferated throughout the country in the late 1880s, when operas were some of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States (for all classes of people).

The legend is…


Edward Samuels has an absolutely brilliant piece on the struggles of Gilbert and Sullivan with regards to copyright up here. It’s well worth reading.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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