U.S. Copyright Office

The concept of plagiarism is hardly new; the first case dates as far back as the first century, concerning a roman poet by the name of Martial. For a long time, however, it remained largely restricted to literary works and was only expanded to include those of a musical nature in the early 1900s. Needless to say, academic dishonesty is much easier to spot owing in no small part to the years and years of precedent, while musical plagiarism has a much larger scope for debate.

The Academic Integrity statement published by the University at Buffalo is a prolonged, comprehensive statement and a student caught in one of the acts mentioned as an example of academic dishonesty would be hard pressed to argue against the allegation. Unauthorized ‘teamwork’ is included in said acts, and so is incomplete citation. The consequences are clear and informed to each student before they begin schooling at UB. I have seen several people get into trouble for academic dishonesty over the last two years, and the proceedings to deal with the issue seemed to be fairly straightforward, methodical even.

The American Historical Association (AHA) presents a view that is slightly contrasting; it accepts the fact that developing history is a collective effort, but due credit must be given to each person whose idea or statement one used in one’s own writing. Any historian found of plagiarizing effectively ruins his or her career, for he or she would no longer be accepted as a part of the community. The Organization of American Historians is quite succinct about it, but their statement is along similar lines as that of the AHA.

These statements are only relevant to the discussion of fair use in music to a certain extent. Restrictions in the musical world are much stricter than those in the literary world. Although scholars are expected to give due credit to their sources, they are not expected to pay them any royalties. While it would be illegal (and certainly rude) to copy entire literary pieces and dump a citation at the end, scholars can get away with borrowing a lot more material than musicians can. It is near impossible to set a hard limit to how much a musician can borrow from another without permission, but I can safely say at this moment it is not very much. Well, not without facing a lawsuit. Any borrowing must also be accompanied by royalties provided to the owner of the song one wishes to borrow from. All in all, it seems like the music industry never caught up with the academic industry where the concept of intellectual property is concerned.

‘Whole lotta love', one of Led Zeppelin’s most famous songs, was proved to have been ‘inspired’ by the song ‘You need love’ written by one Willie Dixon. Although the music in itself sounds nothing like Dixon’s version, the lyrics are strikingly similar. Whether the lyrics being stolen reduces the value of Zeppelin’s music is a matter of personal opinion. After all, being an artist does mean being influenced by artists before your time and building off of their ideas as much as it means creating fresh ones of your own. It is not as if the band made a cover version of Dixon’s song and tried to pass it off as their own. Rather, they transformed it to give it the distinctive Zeppelin sound. Although I would agree it was unfair on the band’s part to not credit Dixon as an influence, (which they ended up doing after Dixon reached an out-of-court settlement with them), I do not consider their actions abhorrent enough to warrant contempt for their creations. They were, without doubt, one of the greatest band this world has ever seen.

As is my attitude to most facets of life, a sweet spot must be reached between giving musicians enough artistic freedom so as to not limit their ability to create and hence provide value to the world’s culture while also ensuring everybody gets the credit they deserve. As far as copyright owners are concerned, I do support giving them exclusive rights to their creations for a limited period of time. As a general rule, a copyright is valid for the duration of the author’s life plus seventy years. To me, it seems way longer than necessary. For a long time, the Statute of Anne granted copyright ownerships to owners of literary works for a term of 14 years which sounds way more reasonable in my opinion. 14 years gives the copyright owner time to gather most of the revenue the piece is destined to make, and gives other artists access to works they can build on. After expiry of the copyright ownership, I wholeheartedly support the idea of continuing to give the original artist the credit he or she deserves, but the artist should no longer be required to make monetary compensation in any form.

I do not view online sources of information as being any different from other, more tangible ones apart from the fact that they’re a lot more easily accessible. A creative person who has decided to share his work with the public over the internet is no different from one who has chosen the more traditional route. They both deserve credit for their efforts, and monetary compensation in the event that another creative person wishes to borrow or in any other way benefit from the success of the original creator. They should have similar rights in the case of copyright infringements as well.

The ‘Fair Use’ document from the U.S. Copyright Office is ‘fair’ly vague; although it provides a general idea of what constitutes legal use of another’s creation, there is no way of concretely determining whether somebody’s use of a particular piece of music is fair without going to court. The document itself admits that the distinction is more grey than black and white, which does not help. In the document’s defense, it goes on to provide a list of examples of what can be considered fair use, but the list is far from exhaustive. In my opinion, this limits an artist’s freedom to create, for one could easily be led to believe if one does not fall into one of the categories their is no point trying, which may or may not be the case.

The document mentions four factors which must be considered when deeming a document fair or unfair, one of them being the nature of the copyrighted book. I have absolutely no clue what to make of that; does nature refer to whether the work is musical versus literary or something along those lines? Or does it refer to the type of license that accompanies it? Any document that rouses more questions than it answers is unlikely to be very helpful. There is a lot of room for doubt, and most artists would prefer to avoid the risk of igniting the wrath of the copyright owner, resulting in a great loss for the world’s culture.

The creators of RIP!: A Remix Manifesto depict themselves as clear proponents of reduced copyright restrictions and consequently greater freedom in the world of music production. The fact that the documentary itself is open-source doesn’t hurt, and they do a great job of convincing the viewer that the alleged copyright violators aren’t just stealing from musicians of the past, but building on it to become the musicians of the future. Creating mash-ups or remixes is an art unto itself, and the final piece in most cases sounds nothing like the original. I wholeheartedly support the idea of giving artists the credit they are due, but I also believe their songs should be transferred to the public domain after a fixed, short time period. I believe there could be three reasons why people would want to use works from the past. One, it is becoming increasingly harder to create new music owing to the centuries of music we have in recorded form. Secondly, some musicians (including myself) are creative enough to modify existing works but not think too far out-of-the-box. Lastly, it simply takes too much time. Whatever reason, it is a fact of reality that to encourage continuous creative growth in the field of music, we must not limit the tools musicians have access to. After all, aren't ‘musical influences’ defining for how most artists’ music turns out?