Zonophone versus Berliner and Johnson (there could only be one Victor!)

Imagine you are the owner of a cutting-edge technology business, a technology that you invented. Imagine then that a former employee of yours sets up his own company using your technology. You’d be a bit pissed off I expect. But then this former employee of yours has the bare-faced cheek to sue you for infringement of copyright, and not only that, he wins! Sounds implausible. Well it’s a story that I came across today whilst doing some research into the early record business.

The big two players in the 1890s were Emile Berliner and Thomas Edison. Their relationship was uneasy, but their approaches to the recording industry were quite different. Edison was a firm believer in the wax cylinder method that he invented, whereas Berliner used his flat disc gramophone system. It was an arms race of competing technologies, rather like VHS vs Betamax.

One of Berliner’s employees was a guy named Frank Seaman, who left the business and in 1899 set up his own Zonophone company. The disc technology he used was a brazen copy of Berliner’s. Not only that, but the hardware he manufactured was also ripped off from a guy called Eldridge Johnson whose own company traded technology and ideas with Berliner’s.

When Berliner complained that Seaman was in breach of contract, Seaman sued both him and Johnson for copyright infringement. With the help of a shyster lawyer called Phillip Mauro, on June 25th 1900 he got an injunction that prevented Berliner from selling to anyone but himself – and of course, he wasn’t buying.

Lurking behind the scenes like a hungry vulture was Columbia Records. They’d started out as merely a distributor for Edison’s cylinders, but had broken with the inventor in 1893 and become a manufacturer in their own right. Berliner’s gramophone technology was a threat to their competing system, and they wanted it shut down, so they threw their lot in with Seaman.

Berliner and Johnson counter-sued, and the injunction was finally lifted in July 1901. They set up a new joint venture called the Victor Talking Machine Company, with the name a nice little dig at Zonophone. Actually, there seems to be debate as to whether Berliner had anything to do with Victor – some claim he was a partner, others that he had nothing to do with the new company. Actions and counter actions continued until 1903 when the Zonophone company was swallowed up by Johnson’s Victor.

Zonophone didn’t cease to exist altogether. It was wiped off the map in North America, but deals done with European companies such as the Gramophone Company in Britain (the forerunner of EMI) meant that it continued to exist in some form. Indeed, the label was still being used in Britain into the 1960s.

Berliner didn’t stay in the record business. By 1922 he was working on helicopter design. Victor spent nearly three decades as one of the big two US companies alongside Columbia (who eventually ditched cylinders when they saw which way the wind was blowing). Edison stubbornly stuck with his technology, but by the end of World War one, it was clear that it was obsolete.

Victor was eventually swallowed up by the Radio Corporation of America in 1929, who were looking for a recording side to complement their hugely successful radio empire. They used the name RCA Victor into the seventies when he old moniker was finally dropped.

Some sources:

http://www.musicweb-international.com/Friedman/page26.htm

http://www.davidsarnoff.org/vtm-appendix01.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zonophone

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