Monday, August 11, 2008

Jeffrey Lewis on unconscious musical borrowing

Songwriter Jeffrey Lewis has a fascinating 'blog post on the exstasy of influence:

Rip-Off Artist

Lewis writes:  
Perhaps we would like to think that the thoughts that go into creating a new song are purely impressions from “real life,” but a melody does not suggest itself as much from the impression of the 6 train ride you took this morning as it does from a melody from another song. The same for chord progressions, song concepts, lyric sounds and patterns, song structures and everything else. Folk music is supposed to be a shared continuum after all, and as Louie Armstrong said, “All music is folk music, I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.”

Despite knowing all this, as a supposedly “creative” artist I am often shocked to discover that a song I’ve written has been a blatant unconscious rip-off of somebody else’s song, either in its structure, or lyrics, etc; if I’m lucky the other person’s song is not particularly popular or recognizable!
What Lewis describes is the compositional process. It was described in very similar terms by German baroque composer Johann Mattheson, in his book Das Vollkommene Capellmeister (1739) Part 2, Chapter 4. Mattheson wrote that a composer, through study and listening to good works, should build up an internal kit of progressions and musical phrases which could be drawn on to create melodies. For a discussion, and a translation of the passage from Mattheson, see George J. Buelow, "Mattheseon's Concept of 'Moduli' as a Clue to Handel's Compositional Process", Gottinger Handel-Beitrage III, Bareinter-Verlag, Kassel, 1989, pp. 272-278.

As Lewis notes, however, the process he describes can sometimes reach the status of unconscious copyright infringement.    Copyright, in other words, applies the legal analog of a frictional force against the natural working of the creative process.  Copyright is supposed to be an incentive to creativity, yet here we find it working against the creative process.

The solution is simple:  copyright should be moderate in duration and moderate in scope.  In particular, the duration of U.S. copyright as it now is should be reduced by 20 years or more.  And the margins of fair use should be broadened.

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