Intellectual Property: Whose Song is it Anyway?


Heidi Waleson
Heidi Waleson
Photo by Melissa Richard

Intellectual property has been a locus of debate for centuries. The difficulties of establishing standards for its ownership and exploitation stem from the fact that such property is not tangible, but rather the expression of the human mind and spirit. What is more, most creations of this kind can only be shared if they are given physical form by some means, and if that physical form is duplicated in some way. Music is even more problematic than other art forms in that anyone’s experience of music is ultimately an experience of a duplication of a musical work, whether via an actual live performance or some form of transmission of a performance. So who reaps the financial benefit of that duplication?

The development of copyright law (and its related areas of trademark and patent law), reflects attitudes toward such property that vary from culture to culture, but is concerned with balancing the rights of creators with the utilitarian needs of consumers. In some minds, copyright exists to compensate and protect the artist; in others, to stimulate the artist to produce more art, but not at the expense of the marketplace. Rapid technological advances have made the marketplace a more and more open area.

The current battles over music and the Internet are the most recent step in the struggle of copyright law to keep up with technology, a race that has been particularly intense during the 20th century, with its constant advances. Think about sound recordings, radio, movies, television, the photocopier, the DAT player. Rights that come into question with each new development tend to be fought out in the courts — and often decided in favor of the consumer, rather than the copyright holder. This leaves the US Congress to devise revision of copyright legislation to take new issues into account, and the Congress has tended to be a decade or two behind each of these developments. The following is a brief timeline of the development of copyright in the US, particularly as it applies to composers, offering a bit of historical perspective on an issue that never seems to be entirely resolved.

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