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Theft: A History of Music

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  • Theft: A History of Music

    I finished reading this recently and it really had an impact on my thoughts regarding copyright, sampling, copying, and all kinds of stuff like that. For anyone that likes to talk about the world around music, this is an excellent graphic novel to get into.

    Basically, the author puts forward the idea that innovation and creative control in music are a function of how a society views music, how various people in the music business make their living, and how people take music into their lives.

    For example, in ancient Greece, only two scales were officially allowed. Any kind of innovation was seen as a threat to the state. Music, therefore, had zero creative license and everyone HAD to copy each other. Kind of the same thing in medieval times, when music was seen as a key to emotions and only good, "churchy" music was officially sanctioned, even though lots of church songs were derived from very bawdy common songs.

    Up to the end of the classical period, music was composed for a particular time and place. Nobody "copied" such pieces, but everybody "adapted" them for new times and new places. It was no big deal. A composer for the Elector of Brandenburg didn't give a care if some guy in Baden was taking his work and doing things with it - they worked for different patrons.

    But when musicians and composers began to reach mass audiences in the Romantic period, ideas about copying began to develop. In the Romantic period, it was considered uncool to copy someone note-for-note. But, if you "borrowed" a line from another composer and then applied your own genius to it, it was considered that you had "returned it with interest". A form of musical flattery, if also mixed in with some one-upmanship.

    When the sheet music business took off as a side-market to the home piano business, that's when composers realized the potential damages they'd face if other people copied their work and made unauthorized editions of their pieces. Copyright law got into the mix during the 19th century.

    At first, it was pretty simple - treat a work of music like a book or other written material. Read it out loud - or perform it - all you want, just don't make unauthorized copies.

    But when copies of recordings could be made, that made a huge change. Now performers wanted to copyright their performances and composers wanted to control who was allowed to make performances of their works... and copyright law got real complicated, real fast.

    At the same time, composers were still getting inspired by or wanting to use snippets of pieces written by other composers, so the question regarding how much of a piece could be used without violating copyright began to be asked.

    As I read it, I though about my criticism of bands like Led Zeppelin for taking works written by others and claiming them as their own. To be honest, when I bought my first record, I wasn't looking for a Willie Dixon album. I didn't ask for Howlin' Wolf and the record store guy slipped me a Zep LP... nothing of the kind. I wanted a Led Zeppelin album, and I got it. Buying that Zep album didn't take bread out of someone else's mouth because I wasn't going to buy anything from those guys at that time. Indeed, Zeppelin's copying, but for claiming the credits, really struck me as "returning with interest" stuff that they really liked. There's stuff that was popular at the time that they took from, no question. But there was a lot of obscure stuff - really really really obscure stuff - that they also took from. I dare say that I wouldn't have gotten into Willie Dixon or Howlin' Wolf except for the Zeppelin connection.

    I still say that Zeppelin should have done a better job of crediting on their albums, but at the same time, I don't think I'm as hard on them as I am on the managers, lawyers, and record company execs that let that stuff through. There's also the question of who benefits the most from a copyright fight, the musician or his legal team?

    And when I read recently more details about Badfinger's awful demon of a manager, coupled with Apple Record's horrible devil of an executive, and how they all combined to effectively keep that band from recording, performing, or releasing any material because of ownership questions, I saw copyright law in that case as a prison, not a protection, for the artist. In the case of Badfinger, copyright law was used to benefit parasites and destroyed that band.

    The book is US$2.99 in Kindle format, very high interesting-to-cost ratio, and I highly recommend it.