Igor Stravinsky once said “the merely good composer borrows; the great composer steals.” He knew that creativity and innovation is often the product of artists building upon the work of their predecessors. Indeed it was easier, back when Stravinsky was composing his masterpieces for Diaghilev, to borrow or steal ideas or material. This was a post-vaudeville landscape where the arts had already been commingling with the developing entertainment industry (i.e. music as commodity was already raking in some serious cash). It was a marriage that spawned some of today’s corporate mega-giants who are arguably suppressing our collective creativity. The biggest foe of cultural freedom… you guessed it, Mickey Mouse.
In 1928, Walt Disney animated a parody of Buster Keaton‘s Steamboat Bill. As it turns out, “Steamboat Willie” which introduced the world to Mickey Mouse also ended up securing Disney’s future corporate empire, despite the fact that “Steamboat Willie” was, in essence, stolen from Keaton. When you think about it, Disney’s entire film oeuvre consists mostly of appropriated literature and fairy tales—some in the public domain, some not. Like Stravinsky, it seems Disney also ascribed to the notion that creativity and innovation are cultivated by building upon the past.
America’s first copyright laws didn’t really affect composers. They pertained only to “print,” protecting works for 14 years and leaving musical creativity absolutely unregulated. Since 1962, the courts have ruled to extend the copyright term on eleven separate occasions. Coincidentally, these extensions conveniently coincide with a certain mouse’s schedule to enter into the public domain. The most recent increase, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, prolonged the life of all copyrights for another 20 years. Looks like Mickey is safe for now, or at least until 2023. And anything you compose today will be “protected” for at least 70 years after your death.
Which brings us to the real crux: culture is owned—not only by its authors, but more and more frequently by corporations. As composers, we need freedom to experiment, push boundaries, and ultimately advance our art form. Limiting our access to the work of our peers, past or present, and outlawing appropriation robs us of a slice of that creative possibility. Looking through the lens of capitalism, like it or not, the music we compose is a commodity, or, as a lawyer might say, it’s intellectual property. Although it’s often the furthest thing from a composer’s mind when making new music, the real world has framed the paradigm quite simply: music=money.
So while you sit on top of the pile of cash you’ve earned as a composer, working on your next flute sonata, think about what the real-world ramifications would be if it were to be used by another artist in some fashion: What if that tune you just wrote were to be sampled by, say, Missy Elliott, or Elliott Carter wants to embed your piece into his new piano work, or Joe Nobody builds a dance track around it using GarageBand? The fact is, yes, you’re being plagiarized, but, perhaps more importantly, you’re also being publicized, maybe even immortalized. You bet Paul Lansky was thrilled with the attention he got when Radiohead sampled his obscure tape piece mild und leise.
But wait a minute, let’s set all biases aside for a moment. Doesn’t it seem possible for composers and artists to police each other concerning issues of plagiarism? My definition of plagiarism may be different than your take on the issue, but why are we allowing lawmakers to decide the parameters of ownership? Alternatives, such as Creative Commons, offer another paradigm and composers need to take a really close look at what we’re losing and what we might gain if we made our own rules.
So who cares if you steal? Well, besides all the work they do supporting and promoting authors and composers, it’s the publishers who keep the tightest chokehold on their copyrights, as those who’ve undertaken the task of securing permission to set a copyrighted text to music may know all too well. Back in 1969, the copyright holder of Erik Satie‘s Socrate refused to allow a performance of John Cage‘s two piano arrangement of the piece. Seeing that Merce Cunningham had already choreographed a dance based on Cage’s transcription, the composer devised a brilliant plan to keep the curtain from falling on the performance. Keeping the rhythmic architecture intact, Cage systematically, using the I Ching of course, replaced each pitch of Satie’s melodic line, thus creating a new composition he titled Cheap Imitation.
Yes, art can be the fruit of stifling restrictions, but a better balance needs to be struck between unregulated artistic freedom and protecting the needs of those actually making a buck off their work. The perfect balance is only a pipedream that would require a whole new approach to how composers are compensated for their work. I would never suggest cutting publishers or performing rights organizations entirely out of the picture, but with the rampant wave of self-publishing and new models of copyright protection springing up, it’s clear that some composers are willing to give up certain rights and advantages, and in a sense donate their work to a grassroots rebirth of free flowing, unregulated artistic exchanges where artists build and innovate upon the work of their peers on sites like opsound.org. But like a hippie commune, this way of life isn’t for everybody.