If Songs Were Software

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Exhibit A: Friends and Family, a song in the key of F. Released by Trik Turner in 2002.

Exhibit B: Five-String Serenade, a song in the key of G. Released by Mazzy Star in 1993.

Once you strip away minor differences of tone, tempo, and transposition, the guitar accompaniment in both songs is note-for-note identical: a specific (and memorable) broken chord pattern on a rising I - ii7 - IV progression. It's pretty blatant, but in music this kind of borrowing is sometimes tolerated. Listen to Nate Harrison's fascinating account of the Amen Break, a.k.a. the most widely-sampled drum beat in history.

The Amen Break inspired an entire subculture of musical innovation back in the day. That probably couldn't happen in today's copyright-obsessed recording industry, as Nate points out around the 9:50 mark:

So perhaps an important question is where are the Winstons during all this? Sample-based music, both in the US and abroad, mushroomed during the 1990s. Were they around to witness the transformation of their break beat from a Baby Boomer soul-groove into a staple for underground electronic music? Did any of the members of the band care about its blatant appropriation, seemingly without consent, by musicians in rave and hiphop?

Perhaps Richard Spencer, a founding member of the Winstons, and the copyright holder of Amen Brother (and who, interestingly enough, left the music biz and later received a pHD in political science), simply didn't care. Perhaps he, like many people during hip-hop's early years, didnt see it and other sample-based music as having any potential beyond a limited underground appeal. During the 80s when DJs plundered old jazz and R&B records looking for samples, hip-hop in particular and electronic music in general were not the pop phenomena and money-makers we know them as today. There seemed to be a brief few sort of glory years back then, when the novelty of sampling, and the rate at which it was being employed as a new technique, grew faster than the rate at which any sort of copyright bureaucracy could maintain the law. Older bits of sampling were appropriated, perhaps under the assumption of they're being able to be freely used, in the spirit of a pledge to new forms. In other words: sampling was not seen as merely rehashing old sounds, but as an attempt to make new from something oldan artistic strategy as time-honored as creative expression itself.

Only when these urban forms began receiving a lot of attention, and making a lot of money, did people, and more importantly, corporate bigwigs who held the copyrights to much of the back catalogue of contemporary American music, start cracking down on copyright violation.

But as broken as it may be, the status quo of music copyright today is miles and miles better than what we face in the software patent landscape of the future. If songs were software, rest assured the "broken chords on a rising I - ii7 - IV progression" and the Amen Break would both have been patented as "devices" a long time ago. Those forms would disappear from the available palette of musical creativity, barred from use except by those who can afford to pay. Imagine a world in which musicians couldn't use the simple three chord progression (I, IV, V, one of the most common progressions in Western music) because it had been patented by the likes of Apple, Microsoft, or Lodsys...and you're perilously close to imagining the world of software patents as it exists today.

Tags: music, copyright, music theory, patents

7 comment(s)

Exhibit A:

Unfortunately, this video is not available in Germany because it may contain music for which GEMA has not granted the respective music rights.

I think the progression is actually a I - II7 - IV, not I - ii7 - IV. Nice segue from music into software patents though, for a second I thought I had the wrong website.

I agree.

Just recently Apple has been suing makers of android devices over such stupid patents.

The whole system is so bad. Just another way the rich to get richer I guess.

Epic header FTW!

If people can get away with that movie doppelgangers stuff they can get away with this. Can you patent or copyright a sequence of notes, in isolation?

If people can get away with that movie doppelgangers stuff they can get away with this. Can you patent or copyright a sequence of notes, in isolation?

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