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Copyright vs Copyleft

I wanted my first column here on The Seminal to be something interesting to discuss about which some of the folks here will have some strong opinions. No better way to get a good comment section debate going than to discuss a person’s or group’s rights around here so I figured we should talk about the foundation on which the entire recorded music business exists: copyrights.

Copyright is considered by some people to be a sacred property right that was deemed so important it was written into the US Constitution:

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries".

The legal concept of copyright to musical creations actually predates the recorded music industry by a few hundred years. According to Wikipedia’s entry on the History of Music Publishing, while the concept of exclusive rights to the distribution of printed music notation dates to the mid 15th century it was not officially government sanctioned until the 16th and 17th Centuries when monopolies were granted by various royal governments to printers such as Ottaviano Petrucci of Venice and John Rastell of England.

These guys are the fathers of the modern music publishing business which not surprisingly began not long after the invention of Gutenberg’s movable type printing presses. Prior to private music publishing, composers would transcribe by hand their creations and distribute them manually to the musicians they would perform with. As a result of this, and due to a virtual monopoly on education by the Roman Catholic Church, much of the music that predates the invention of the movable type press is religious chants.

It was a time consuming enterprise to transcribe music on a mass scale and so it fell to monks to replicate the Church’s chants for redistribution. As a result, there isn’t that much secular music that survived the Dark Ages.

Music publishing companies of today play an important and crucial role in the modern music business. It is through music publishing rights that the people who write the songs we listen to actually get paid to produce their works. Recording companies (I prefer this term to the generic record companies) like Warner Brothers Records, Sony BMG, Universal, etc. and on down to the indie label down the street from your favorite coffee shop rely on the licensing of the song’s sound recordings to obtain the rights to distribute them in physical or digital forms.

It’s the musicians themselves in most cases who set up their own music publishing companies and then affiliate themselves with one of the performing rights associations such as BMI or ASCAP who actually collect the money from recording companies. The recording companies fix those recordings into some digital or physical form for resale to the public via whatever means at their disposal.

I know at this point we could divert off into several other sub topics and minutiae of how the music business uses the old system to abuse musicians and many other topics, but for today’s piece lets just focus on copyrights. They can be a musician’s friend or depending on your view the chains through which they are bound to the corporations who used to run the show and are now angry that the old system has been obliterated by the no cost delivery of recorded music direct from the producer to the consumer.

Copyright has been the subject of reams of case history and legal precedents. Its the number one battlefield for free speech and free expression, its the hammer used in countless major legal disputes of our time. So why is everybody in the recorded music business having a conipition? Well, there is an entire class of new legal territory that has grown up in the last 30 years or so that rejects the usual precepts and meaning of reserving the rights to your own works and creations. The copyleft movement began in the early days of home computing, or it began with the original DFH musicians who would record and distribute their music for free on reel to reel and cassette tapes depending on whose opinion you ask. Or maybe it began with the work done by archivists who went into the field in the 1930s to record blues music played by sharecroppers.

Copyleft is a generic term for any kind of license arrangement that codifies and creates a license to work created by an author who wishes to allow any member of the general public to use their work however they wish so long as the derivative work is credited to the original author and is distributed in the same public manner. There are several different organizations and open source licenses freely available on the internet such as for software developers there is the GNU General Public License, and for authors, musicians, photographers and more there is the Creative Commons family of licenses.

From the Wikipedia entry on copyleft they sum it up succinctly:

While copyright law protects the rights of the creator by providing control of distribution and modification, the idea of copyleft is to grant subjective libre freedom to end users. copyleft licenses specify clauses which explicitly remove those restrictions the creator considers to not provide libre freedom to the end user. In software, open source copyleft licenses place the primary restriction that information helpful in supporting modification of software (e.g. source code) must be made available to a user with a copy of the licensed software and allows the original author to be acknowledged.

With the onset of digital distribution, peer to peer file sharing and high bandwidth home Internet connections we have now come to the tipping point. More major musicians are making the switch to independent releases outside the recording company system. More and more musicians are making their money in new and innovative ways, by embracing the concept of the "freeconomy" like Nine Inch Nails‘s Trent Reznor has. 

I am a firm believer that the challenges facing musicians on all levels of the recorded music business can be resolved over time. I am encouraged by out of the box thinking. Even a comeback of sorts is taking place with the concept of patronage for musicians. Many musicians are turning to sponsorships and crowdfunding of their recording projects. Pairing up with a local business to help defray the costs of a CD or digital distribution recording project or asking a band’s fans to contribute money to a project are but two ideas bands have discovered to help them make a living. 

Through the use of copyleft licensing and connecting directly with fans, the modern musician of our time has a chance to take control of their professional life and do so in a way that works with their fans, not against them. At the end of the day, this is what really matters, and this is where copyleft licensing can lead the way to a better, healthier and more financially secure future for musicians.

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Joh Padgett

Joh Padgett

I do the music column on Saturdays and the Primordial Grooves playlist on The Seminal blog on Sundays. I also own Layman Media, a social media production company in Indianapolis and I love cheese.