Musicology and Copyright

Daniel Wolf points to some recent posts to the Society for Music Theory’s email list concerning recent copyright legislation and musicology’s (non-)contribution to the development of such laws. David Huron* initiated the debate with a call for musicologists to become more clued up to issues of copyright, and to do more professionally to guide public policy in such areas. So far the responses have largely been along the lines of “Well, I am/know people who are involved in a musicological study of copyright law”, and that is great. But my personal experience of musicologists (and some musicians even, who have an even greater stake in all this) is that basic knowledge of how the various copyrights in music function is not widespread. Musicological responses to the Lionel Sawkins case a couple of years back ranged from the clued up to the clueless (including one or two who felt comfortable issuing opinions without having read the judgment itself, or any of the other court documents). I’ve said before that if one is a professional creator of intellectual property (which you are as soon as you put pen to paper or bow to string) a basic knowledge of where you and your work stand legally should be a basic tool of your trade.

But the issues for musicology and copyright extend far beyond retaining control of one’s intellectual property, or of knowing how to get permission to use a particular extract in a publication, and it is such matters to which Huron alludes. I need to put together a reading list on the subject to know more precisely where things currently stand scholarship-wise, but some of the issues that should be of grave concern to musicology are:

  • 1. more and more of our cultural output is increasingly held by corporations, who lobby for stricter copyright legislation to protect their investment but restrict free and easy access and dissemination
  • 2. the relevant laws that concern digital archiving, format shifting and backup copies are fragmented, often not up to speed with technology, and frequently restrict the activities of libraries in preserving recorded documents (this is an especially pressing problem with tape recordings, which deteriorate but in many instances cannot legally be copied to a new format for the sake of preservation)
  • 3. with the rise of portable digital technologies it should be easier than ever to preserve a rich archive of cultural activity. This applies especially to music, where audio and video recording of a unique event is now simple. The development of copyright legislation in recent decades, however, has worked to restrict the potential of such technology for preservation, dissemination and study.
  • 4. legal actions – often worth very large sums of money – are now commonplace between copyright holders and other musicians over the appropriation, reuse or simple allusion to prior copyrighted work. Such a legal environment not only restricts creativity but challenges our present concepts of authorship, innovation, musical production, and the nature of the work itself.

All these matters – and there are doubtless more – are of immediate concern to our discipline, and Huron is right to say that musicologists have to become more involved in guiding public policy here. Some are, certainly, but while legislation continues to be passed that strengthens the power of the corporate copyright holder over the creativity of the artist, or restricts society’s potential for cultural preservation (and therefore future development and innovation), then clearly more of us need to be doing more.

*Incidentally, Huron’s Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation is discussed in a recent post by Scott Spiegelberg.

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