The legendary conductor (and acerbic musical quote-mine) Sir Thomas Beecham once said: “a musicologist is someone who can read music but can’t hear it”. And it’s fair to say that, in terms of profile, musicology is not one of the highest peaks in the UK research landscape. Qualitative research in the arts generally can have a difficult time justifying its existence in an increasingly corporeal and impact-centred (some might say philistine) political agenda, and music has particular difficulties in this regard, being perhaps the most abstract art form of all. Sir Thomas’s view shows clearly and painfully how easy it is to accuse musicology of continually Dancing About Architecture. So it may surprise some readers to learn that my own field of research – creative processes and forensic musicology in popular songwriting – was part of an impact case study for my institution in REF 2014.
At the root of copyright’s legislative reach, and practical effects, is the matter of ‘copying’ itself – often referring to what may legitimately (morally or legally) be done with an apparently completed piece. Yet making music, and acquiring the skills to do so, is shot through with acts of copying, from straightforwardly learning a basic riff to the network of socially inflected influences in composition and multifarious technological means of manipulation, particularly in popular music, where criteria for entry to the field are relatively lightly codified. Likewise, as well disrupting longstanding distribution methods, digital technology has blurred the relationship between production, consumption and the ‘finished product’.
Musicians are central to an industry rhetoric in support of copyright protection that often relies upon conceptions of discrete works established in a pre-digital era. This paper explores popular musical practices themselves in the face of a rapidly evolving palette of creative possibilities. How do musicians regard digital techniques—like sampling—and their outputs against other long established forms of copying? At what point do they consider the implications of copyright for their practice?
This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 229. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Andy Watt. Click the image to download a pdf.
It’s a common feeling. You write a line and it immediately sounds just right. Timeless. Familiar. Almost… too familiar. You play the finished song to your mates and someone notices – you’ve copied someone else’s track. Gutted, you delete that great-sounding line and spend hours trying to write something that sounds as good.
This sort of accidental copying happens to every songwriter from time to time. Most of us just exhale sadly and hope wait for inspiration to flow again, following the tracks of our tears. But some take the darker path, keeping the copied section and hoping that no-one will notice. Leading us to the inevitable question: how much of someone else’s song can actually be copied?
The answer, frustratingly, is ‘none at all’. Contrary to popular myth, there is no maximum number of notes you can copy ‘legally’. If your song sounds recognisably like part of another song, and the other side can demonstrate in court that copying has occurred, you could end up owing someone a lot of money, or even lose ownership of your own work.