Music, the Creative Process and Copyrights

Smacholdt's picture


Music, the Creative Process and Copyrights

“Genius borrow nobly (87),” begins chapter J: hip-hop of David Shield’s book, Reality Hunger. Quote number 260 follows with “Good poets borrow; great poets steal (87).” Number 261 states simply, “art is theft (87).” Artists working in any medium are no doubt guilty of borrowing or, depending on your position, stealing material. Artists imitate and borrow from each other constantly. The nature of art is that it changes and gains useful parts from the works of others. However, borrowing material from other sources is an often difficult, if not illegal, proposition. Therefore, questions have been raised by musicians and lay people alike about the validity of the ridged copyright laws that govern the intellectual property of the music industry. With all of the new technology of the 21st century, is it fair, or even logical for works of music to be held under such stringent copyright restrictions? And is this repression of ideas stunting musical creativity?

David Shields feels that we have hit something of a barrier in our cultural search for new entertainment. He asks, “why is hip-hop stagnant right now. Why is rock dead, why is the conventional novel moribund? (87)” His conclusion is that artists are “ignoring the culture around them, where new, more exciting forms of narration and presentation are being found (87).” Modern music artists are unable to continue the natural creative process of taking material from other sources and incorporating it into their own work, because of the restriction placed on them by US copyright laws, which automatically puts a copyright on newly published works. David shields articulates the ideas of the musical creative process succinctly by saying, “…you steal somebody else’s beats, then- with just turntables and your own mouth- you mix and scratch that shit up to the level your own head is at (90).” This is how the creative process should work. Artists get inspiration from others and then change it to create something novel. Another Reality Hunger quotes makes the point that “People, in life, quote what pleases them. Therefore, in our work, we have the right to quote what pleases us (91).” There is no longer anything completely new in the world, so to some extent all artists have to borrow from their predecessors and contemporaries to produce anything at all. But this raises the question, when can something be considered “new”?

A modern trend in the music business is that of music sampling, in which an artist will take a piece of a preexisting song and create an entirely new work from it. Artist Jason Derulo uses a line from Imogen Heaps’s song, “Hide and Seek” in his song “Whatcha Say.” While a line in both songs is the same, the outer layers of both songs are strikingly different. Some artists are guiltier of sampling lines from songs than others (both 50 Cent and Eminem commonly sample and are sampled.)  The 2004 Grey Album was released by the DJ Danger mouse as a fusion of the Beatles White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album.  Though it is admittedly strange to her Jay-Z rap, “I'm like a Russian mobster, drinkin distilled vodka/ ‘Til I'm under the field with Hoffa, it's real” to pieces of the Beatles song, “Dear Prudence”, the finished product is strikingly different from either of the original pieces of music.

One main problem with the debate over freedom of shared ideas versus protection of intellectual property is what makes something new. Thousands of years worth of human innovation renders the idea of something being completely, new, basically null. Nothing can be completely new. Therefore, if nothing is truly new it is difficult to punish someone for stealing the ideas of someone else. In the age of heavy copyright restrictions we must find a way not only of creating shared intellectual spaces. Numerous examples of shared spaces exist now where people are actively encouraged to share heir ideas with the larger community. Such forums include Project Gutenberg, which allows users to download free online books to computers and electronic readers, “Wikis”, which allow users to add new information or change existing information on a website, and the Creative Commons, which “is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to making it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others, [while still] consistent with the rules of copyright (About).” The Creative Commons design of taking ideas and building upon them is a useful idea.  If people are allowed to do this, many more creative and individual works of music will be created.

We also need to consider the motivations for creating music. If someone is serious about creating musical art, it should not matter for what purpose they are doing it, as long as everyone is given free and equal access to it. If someone is going to create a musical masterpiece and not let anyone copy or alter it in any way, the author should not have published it in the first place. Ideas should be free, and if one person doesn’t think of it, another will. What comes to mind in this situation is the infamous idea that if a room full of monkeys are given typewriters, they will eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. This can be applies to the music business. There are so many people in the world that millions people are bound to come up with the same idea. If one person copyrights his idea and another doesn’t, does that make the other person a thief?  In the eyes if the law it does, which is ridiculous. Therefore, it makes no sense for musical intellectual property to be held under the strict standards that it is.

In essence, the combined impediments of copyright law and faulty logic lead to the conclusion that the way that we approach the issue of music sampling and “copyright infringement issues” is not logical. Before we can property address these issues, we have to address whether intellectual property is something that can be owned, or whether it is something that is essential to be shared. Also, if it is decided that regulation of musical intellectual property is something that has to be done, it needs to be decided how much of something must be different to be considered a song to be new. Without answers to these questions, it is impossible to decide whether it is fair for works of music to be held under such stringent restrictions.




Works Cited

"About." Creative Commons. 14 Sept. 2010.


Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.





Serendip Visitor's picture

The history of art is taking

The history of art is taking from the past and doing something new with it. I mean, you are either paying homage to something in the past or consciously moving away from it.

Anne Dalke's picture

What makes something new?

making something new from something old:
combining a tricycle and a toilet tank to make a planter

yours is not the only essay to take on copyright questions this week, but it is the only one (I've read so far) to actually argue in favor of an open commons. For interesting contrasts (and challenges!) to your own position, see both platano's A Copyrighted Manifesto and ckosarek's Copyright Law & Fair Use: Who's Stealing? (the latter begins w/ a pair of soundtracks that might interest you in particular, since you focus on musical borrowing). If you'd like to explore the legal and financial ramifications of musical sampling further, I'd also recommend Brett Gaylor's 2010 film, RiP! A Remix Manifesto (which will provide more fuel for your fire).

However, the dichotomy you lay out here -- whether intellectual property is something that can be owned, or whether it is something that is essential to be shared -- doesn't cover the whole landscape of possibilities; see, for example, Lewis Hyde's book, Common as Air, which argues in favor of our adopting a cultural commons: not as an alternative to property-owning, but rather as a particular form of collective property.

Speaking of which: let's talk about your use of quotation marks (they go before the page numbers, not after...actually, this is a pretty peculiar way of indicating what is borrowed, what new...!)

Smacholdt's picture

 It was definitely

 It was definitely interesting to compare my ides to the view held by the writers of the other two essays. It seems to me that the main thing that needs to happen in the argument over copyright laws is for social norms about intellectual property to change. If people were able to view this issue in a different light, more compromises might be able to be made. I will definitely try to watch A Remix Manifesto when I have a second. From the preview it seems to cover the exact topic that I try to explore in my paper. 

I will also try to read Common as Air. From what I have read about this book, Hyde has the similar ideas about copyright infringement as I do. 


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