“It’s OK to Copy, right?”

On October 8, 2011

© xkcd

Music creation can be a personal thing – from the moment a chord progression starts to form to when you start bumbling lyrics out. When ideas start to form, you begin to get excited, and maybe – if you’re brave enough – you share them with the world. But many musicians aren’t aware of copyright and the vast legal minefield it can be. 

Wikstöm’s categorises the industry in a new manner, highlighting the confusion around copyright. There are so many terms to define the industry itself that it is difficult for us to discuss the legislation surrounding it. His argument – changing the traditional “creative” industries into a new “copyright” industry – places an interesting focus on what the music industry means. Musicians see a creative field in which they may find fame and fortune. So why has music been reduced to a term which derides its “creativity” and instead focuses on fiscal worth? For musicians to fulfil their hopes, they need to protect their work and be able to monetise it safely in an open market. This is essentially why copyright exists. Yet artists may not be interested in making money from their works. To place every moment of musical artistry into a category based only on consumption and profit can be difficult, especially for those who value creativity over their success. I suppose this is music as art versus music as industry; Wikström’s focus is on industry. 

Rosen’s approaches copyright from a musicological viewpoint, trying to define the importance of creativity in the process. He notes, “the confusion in distinguishing between idea and expression … has accounted for most of the copyright infringement opinions found in reported federal cases” (p.159). For instance, he discusses how difficult it is to argue legally the similarities between pieces of music (p.165). Although copyright protects against obvious forms of duplication, it is difficult to build a case against something which is creatively similar but not a blatant replication. Yet with advances in technology and widespread use of popular music making products, it is likely artists will use similar “prepackaged” material.

Although the idea of copyright was initially introduced to protect against illegal mass publication of printed text, it now attempts to cover many different media. The Hargreaves Report discusses how copyright law needs modernisation to consider the digital age. Our use of current technologies has blurred the legal lines of what we can and can’t do with the media we purchase. The ease with which licensing laws are broken (knowingly or not) shows there has to be a better understanding, both by user and distributor, of what is allowed. 

Laing’s summary of the history of copyright gives insight into how it has evolved and what factors lead to the changes which were needed along the way. Linking this to Hargreaves, we can see that we are in a new age of copyright where further evolution is necessary. We currently deal with old legislation when litigating newer copyright issues. Do copyright rules need revising, or do we need a new system, similar to Hargreaves’ “open market” licensing? The industry has tried DRM systems which failed at consumer level; the UK Digital Economies Act and France’s very strict internet piracy laws show that governments are willing to listen to suggestions. 

In fact, governments have to address copyright quite often. Yesterday was another day of copyright litigation; the US Supreme Court is deciding whether Congress acted unconstitutionally in removing foreign works from the public domain and restoring their copyright status. Yet again, older legislation is questioned. If there is to be a new copyright system, it will include the voices of many digital/creative fields, not only music, and will be shaped by government legislation. The music industry may need to mould itself inside a system dictated by the other, bigger creative economies, without alienating its consumers or its talent. 

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