Friday, February 6, 2015

Nothing In This Title Was Plagiarized: Or Was It?™

Lawrence Lessig
By Joi CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The idea of copying “someone else’s” work (and in turn “violating” copyright law) has been around since the dawn of creativity. “To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism, to steal ideas from many is research.” says Wilson Mizner “Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research.” John Milton. Cool, so pretty much this is research. This is an example of the problem that was created along with the birth child of Robert E. and Kahn Vint Cerf, who were the fathers of the internet. The internet has made it possible to very easily and efficiently pirate almost any literary, visual, and most predominantly, auditory pieces of art in the world. The problem is created when a new factor is introduced to an old system, simply because it was not designed to handle it in the first place. That is exactly what has happened to copyright law because of the internet and other new forms of media distribution. This problem is no where more apparent than in the realm of music and musicians. Copyright law today in incapable of protecting certain ownership rights while still allowing for growing creativity. Problem, great, what can be done to solve it? Answer, free culture.

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.
Biblography

14 comments:

  1. Jonathan, you have tackled a very tough subject, indeed! I would love to hear more about Lessig's Free Culture movement and how you think it could be a solution to the problem of copyright stifling creativity. I'm not quite certain how the White-Smith case relates to all this? Copyright is such a complicated subject, but as you suggest, it's important for us to understand those complexities in our online culture where everyone is sharing, mixing, sampling, and mashing up. On a follow-up note, did you watch the Grammy Awards on Sunday night? Sam Smith won a LOT of them for "Stay With Me" and the story is quite fascinating as it pertains to the settlement with Tom Petty. According to this article from the Washington Post, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne (co-writer) "were not eligible for shares of Smith's Grammys" because they "did not do any new writing for this work." There are now even more layers to that story. This example has been quite timely for your research on this topic!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much for your feedback! If you would like to find out more about free culture, this wikipidia page has some very good explanitory matirial on the origens and purpose of free culture. I use the white-smith case very loosely as an example for people (companies) claiming rights over some specifics found within music. To be fair it is not the best example of this, but it does provide some good ground to determine what would happen legally if something similar were to happen. The facts you point out are very interesting indeed! they mend very well in supporting the problems and ideas that are present with todays copyright law. Thank you for pointing that out.

      Delete
  2. Hello Jonathan!

    Thank you so much for your insightful and though-provoking blog. I was amazed to read that Tom Petty would only take action against Sam Smith. Have you heard the song Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice? Well, Vanilla was accused of copying the bass line from Queen's Under Pressure. You can listen to the MTV interview of Vanilla here and decide for yourself. I listen to songs all the time on my phone and sometimes I can not tell what song I am listening to because they are so closely related. Thank you again for your intelligent words.

    Sincerely,

    TweedleDum

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is indeed a very interesting comparison! as you point out, sometimes the similarities found in songs are very hard to miss! Thank you for bringing this out. There are many, many other song comparisons you can find on the internet that are much like this one. A lot of times the artists in question are high profile songwriters, whose songs have a lot of monetary value associated with them. So thank you again for bringing out this particularly interesting case!

      Delete
  3. Hello Jonathan, this article was amazing, and a applaud you for writing about such a complex topic! I liked how you inserted a lot of the links to the websites that you used so that as a reader, I could read about the topic that you were explaining in more depth. Copy Right can be a major problem, especially in the music industry. I liked how you incorporated a lot of information about copyrighted music. I think that you did a great job getting a lot of information about such a complicated topic. Have you ever run into anything distributed to the public that is copyrighted, other then music? If so what have you run into? Great work Jonathan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much for your kind words! There is just a lot of subject matter on the topic, all very intriguing, that is very interesting to learn about. Yes, I have. In fact, there is copyrighted material all around us in the media every day. It is so cool to look at all of this media and really think about how and why the creator created that piece of artwork, and then link that to other artists work to see how they are all influenced by one another. Thank you for your feedback, it is very much appreciated!

      Delete
  4. Hi Jonathan. I appreciate for your great work that shows good contexts on the information about incapability of copyright laws regarding the time period we are living today. Because our internet is very developed, there are more incidents that can involve plagiarism that can enhance one's project by using others without their permission. However, when it comes to music industry, artists have always been making music out of other's piece because they appreciate what has been composed in history. Should The Charmels really sue the Wu Tang Clan? should artists be reporting each other for using 'their' piece of work? There are plenty of other songs that have been written by many other artists that we can find close similarities on because music have been developing that way. Despite other great information that you provided through your blog, my question to you is should things be considered plagiarism if similarities are found between songs? Personally, I did not give much thought about copyright laws since I did not make important projects that needs to be protected from being used by others. As I will be facing challenging projects in the future, I too wish, someone would give an idea to save other's work better than the copyright laws. You have done a great job Jonathan.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much JS Lee for your feedback! The case you bring up is a commonality in the music industry. There has always been someone claiming that his/her work was copied by another artist and demanding reparations. So to answer your question, whether we acknowledge it or not, some will claim plagiarism if the slightest similarity is found between their work and others. But I very much appreciate your viewpoint on the topic, that is, why should we care if the music is plagiarized or not. And to a certain extent, this is almost the viewpoint behind an idea like free culture, albeit with boundaries. But something important to remember is the many hours of hard work that went into creating a legitimate piece of music, and the fact that this is how an artist makes their living. Thank you very much again for your feedback!

      Delete
    2. Don't forget, too, that many artists work under the same music label, so the parent company that actually owns their work might be willing to share it with other artists in the same company. OR, artists ask permission ahead of time and pay a fee or royalties to the original creator if they have borrowed portions of someone else's work. It's not always a copyright violation! As the general public, we just don't know the terms of the deal behind the scenes.

      Delete
  5. Hey Jonathan! I liked reading your article. I think that our internet is constantly changing and growing, and it is difficult for copyright laws to keep up. A question I ask is, should there be certain guidelines for an artist to follow when removing videos suspicious of plagiarism? As I read in your article about Taylor Swift's action on trademarking her songs, I've seen her in another controversy with a YouTube video. I found an article about the event here. Youtuber Shane Dawson posted a Blank Space parody, switching around the gender roles and adding a dark and psychopathic spin to her song. He also changed all the lyrics as well as the instrument music. I watch his videos as well as this parody. Later on his video was taken down because of it was a "copy written song", when in turn it is said it was removed simply because the parody was too offensive. To me there is not right or wrong side to this, but I think this idea of when it is right to remove a video for plagiarism should be addressed more.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ann, thank you very much for your feedback! The case you have brought up only furthers the emfisis of copyright laws incompetence with todays ever changing internet and music industry. The problem is that there is no "hard and fast rule" as to much of musical plagiarism. Music itself being a very complex art form, makes it very difficult to judge. In court rulings today music is judged qualitatively, as opposed to quantitatively, by a judge who has very little to no musical experience. This can sometimes lead to unintentional unfairness when judging music, especially when it is a small independent producer verses a large record label. In this case of course there was no proper litigation, so the court was not involved. But the reasons of the taking down are very curious. Looking at it from the perspective of the company, and Taylor Swift, the parody may have been seen as damaging to the reputation of a. Swift or b. her song. This is not something covered very well by copyright law today, so there is a lot of room for debate. Thank you again for your feedback and this interesting viewpoint!

      Delete
  6. Hey Jonathan. I think that you have made some very good points and I enjoyed the statement you had in the beginning telling people that copying from one is plagiarism however copying from two is research because it just goes to show that it takes just a little more to get you out of trouble. My question is why is that statement agreed with ? Why doesn't copying two throws you to twice the trouble ? Also, I have a video that compares Sam Smiths "Stay with Me" to Tom Petty's "I won't back down" http://youtu.be/qkcZV97O3pw. Do you think that this could be a reason leading to Tom Parry's outrage ?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much for you feedback, it is very helpful and appreciated! The question you pose is a very good one. I think it has something to do with the notion in art that copying is bad, but stealing is ok. Having written a few songs of my own, this is something i've heard alot. The idea behind this is that if you are copying, you are taking the object piece by piece and reproducing it exactly. But if you're stealing it, you are changing it enough that no one can recognize that you stole it. Now obviously this is a very shallow way of putting it in the light of all the complexity of music, but this is truly something taught and sought. I also think the video you point to is very intriguing as it shows how very similar many popular songs are as a whole. If you look at almost any song (especially pop) it is most likely written in 4/4 timing at around 120 BPM, as well as having many other similarities. So the problem really is when a song gets to specifically similar to another (like what happened in the case of Sam Smith) that there is trouble, otherwise every single artist would have suitable grounds for litigation against every other artist. Thank you again for your feedback and pointing this out, it was very interesting!

      Delete
    2. Would you really call that "stealing" or simply "inspiration" for your own music? If you've changed it enough that it doesn't sound exactly like the original, but you used it as inspiration in your creation, wouldn't that be considered Fair Use? Or is it something else? It's so interesting hearing your take on this topic, Jonathan, because of your close connection to the material and concepts as a musician yourself. Well done!

      Delete

Our comments will be moderated, meaning someone will approve them before they appear.

Good comments
--are always related to the content of the post;
--consider the author and the purpose of the post;
--ask or answer a question;
--add meaningful information to the content topic;
--are constructively critical, and never hurtful;
--include personal connections to what the author wrote;
--follow the writing process.

We welcome your thoughtful contributions, especially those that might help us improve our work or expand our thinking on these topics.

If you choose the Anonymous option, please sign your name if comfortable. It is easier to respond to someone with a name. Thanks!