The decline of the audiocassette

Furdlog points to this BBC article about the decline in audiocassette sales, with Furdlog calling audiocassettes “the first of the ‘music piracy’ formats?”

Let’s not get into the tiresome “piracy” argument. Furdlog does put scare quotes around the phrase. Audiocassettes may have been the first widespread format for music sharing and mixing–how many people still call custom CD-Rs “mix tapes”?

But there’s an odd quote in the story, worth noting:

Oddly, Philips did not charge royalties on their cassette patent, allowing numerous other companies to use their design for free. This ensured the quick acceptance of it as a new form of media.

I don’t believe it would have required that much research for the BBC reporter to eliminate the “Oddly, ” from that statement. I’m not sure whether I got the information from Nick Lyons’ The Sony Vision (Crown, 1976) or Akio Morita’s Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony (Dutton, 1986), but here’s how I summarized it in Current Technologies in the Library: An Informal Survey (G.K. Hall, 1988, still one of the books I’m proudest of):

Philips fully intended to license its patents to other companies for a modest continuing royalty such as 2 cents per cassette. Around 1960 Sony convinced Philips to make the license royalty-free and offered in exchange a patented automatic recording level system that would make cassette recorders much more useful for casual recording. The Sony-Philips cross-licensing marked the beginning of many agreements between these two companies that would influence non-print media, and helped to make the compact cassette a worldwide standard.

Thanks to Sony’s advice, Philips wound up with a reasonable slice of a huge market instead of a big slice of a tiny proprietary market. The biggest “influence” of the two-company relationship to date has been the CD, licensed under a joint Sony-Philips patent cluster. Not for free, though…

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