By Joi CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The inefficiency of today’s copyright law is made apparent by the way it is being exploited and used. We live in a society where property is valued, both physical and intellectual. This is what makes our society tick. Intellectual property, like music, arguably even more so than physical. Music is an asset worth protecting. Often times with monetary value ranging into the millions of dollars. However it becomes problematic and restrictive when artists and large production companies take this protection too far and begin to claim rights on specificities of musical creation, which is often times allowed because of copyright law’s inability to cope with it. An example of this is the White-Smith Music Publishing Co. v. Apollo Co. In this case there was claims to copyright on the “Reproduction of the sounds of musical instruments playing music for which copyright granted not a violation of the copyright.” In other words the deeper technical ideas found in music.
Copyright law is incapable of protecting creative rights in the same way that patent law can be abused. As illustrated in the following example. In 1933 patents were issued to Edwin Howard Armstrong for his invention of the FM radio device. There was a very strong push back on this by the large corporation RCA who held rights on AM radio. This was because FM radio was created specifically to overcome some of the problems that AM radio had. RCA had a monopoly over all of radio until the creation of this new technology. So to protect their product they took control of the FM technology and made his patents void by incorporating it into their television sets. Armstrong tried to fight these efforts by RCA within the judicial system, and ultimately failed. When the patents expired RCA offered Armstrong a settlement that was not even enough to pay his lawyer debts. In 1954 Armstrong, one of America’s great inventors, committed suicide because of the effects of a large corporation acting in their own interests for monetary gain. (Full story in Lessig’s book Free Culture 4-7) This same principle can be applied to copyright law and music. There are large companies using it to their advantage to hold creativity back for the purpose of monetary gain.
Another very glaring flaw is in the way copyright law is so inconsistently applied, even with known fallacy. If you take a look at “10 Famous Cases of Alleged Music Plagiarism” (this is not saying that any of the stories in this report are false or inaccurate) you will find this kind of inconsistency. In some cases artists are fined for “lifting” too much from someone else’s work, But in other cases they settle their differences out of court. And sometimes, artists don’t mind their work being copied...until they do. A recent example of this problem can be seen in the current legal dispute between artists Tom Petty and Sam Smith. Tom Petty took legal actions against Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” because of its similarities with his “I Won’t Back Down.” The result of this was that Tom Petty began to earn 12.5 percent credit on the royalties for “Stay With Me.”
This is a normal occurrence in the musical world, but what make this case particularly confusing is that this is not the first time Petty had been plagiarised. In fact, there had been two other cases in which an artist had copied Petty’s music, once with his “American Girl” and once with his “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” In those cases though, Petty simply disregarded them saying that he didn’t “believe in lawsuits much”. Why did he change his mind with Sam Smith? His formaly lenient attitude could influence many amature artists and creators to believe that it is okay to copy someone else’s music if you can just get away with it. Further complicating the situation is whether or not an artist even then has the right to dictate whether or not legal action is pursued in the event of obvious plagiarism, as there are not only his own interests at stake but also sometimes a record label or individual creator’s. This frustration is further reiterated by an artist who says that “As a creator, it’s frustrating having to stick to some parameters which are fifty years old” (Lessig 27) when the full consequences and boundaries of today’s copyright law are so complicated and often unclear.
This leaves room for the argument that copyright law was first created to protect the artist/publisher from the misuse and recreation of their work for economic gain and recognition of another. And that this is exactly what copyright law has done by extending copyright protection so that proper time can be allowed for the artist/publisher to turn a profit on the work.
In reality copyright law has been influenced by large publishers to be extended 70 years past even the length of the artist’s life span in order for the company to turn the largest profit possible on the work. So, instead of promoting the creation of new works, copyright law in fact very directly stunts the growth of artistic culture. An example of this (in an artist) is in the way Taylor Swift claimed a trademark on phrases from some of her music such as, "This Sick Beat" and "Party Like Its 1989" simply to comand control over the profit the phrases were getting in her music.
In conclusion copyright law is incapable of handling plagiarism, musical plagiarism in particular, because instead of promoting creativity, large companies have taken it under control and used it to further their own profit.
The problems in copyright today are very far reaching, and have many a large effect on many people. Going too far to protect copyright can lead to a destruction of creativity, while leaving it wide open with no restrictions would have much the same effect. But one thing is clear, if it is left how it is now, the future of creativity will be in the hands of a few large companies whose only goals are their own enrichment. Researching this subject has been very enlightening, and has opened up portals into amazing subjects and ideas I had never heard of before. This was especially helpful to me being an amature to learn of what is in the future of the music industry, and what I can do to aid in liberating music. I still firmly believe that each and every one of us, either as consumers or creators, a very big part in making copyright better for the modern world. This is especially apparent in the music industry where it is so hard to tell the difference in what is right and wrong. Feedback such as the “Ice Ice Baby” and the “Under Pressure” comparison were very helpful in aiding me to understand more about other perspectives on the situation, about how much of a problem this truly is, and also gave me other ideas to research while trying to navigate this complex maze. And a maze it truly is, going as far as morals, politics, fundamental ideas of fairness, and many other profound byproducts. The blogging process itself has been very helpful in understanding this as it offers the freedom of communal discussion, thereby allowing for diversity of opinion. So this leaves us with an ongoing discussion that I truly hope with be brought to light before creativity is consumed. This is a responsibility of all to make sure art is forever for the people.