16 January 02004

Are long periods of copyright ownership ever justified?

I'm just back from the RSA's Music and Technology conference. I found the arguments for shortening, or at least halting the lengthening, of periods of copyright ownership quite persuasive. When it was invented copyright, apparently, lasted for 14 years before lapsing or being renewed. Now it lasts, willy nilly, until 70 years after the originator's death in Europe and America. When Lawrence Lessig suggested that few businesses depend on planned revenue streams more than 14 years in the future, that sounded right, and I was on his side for a bunch of reasons.

But then David Vaver inadvertently got my goat by referring mockingly to the case of Mike Batt compensating the estate of John Cage for infringing the copyright of his 'silent piece' 4'33". I am grateful for being angered because this made me review my conclusions again. The example of John Cage makes one of the best cases for extended copyright ownership. Here's why.

Cage was one of the most influential figures in 20th Century music. Yet I believe he was never able to earn a living wage from his composition — he made his living from lectures, teaching and writing. You don't sell many copies of the sheet music for 4'33" of silence (apparently it retails at £4.50) and you don't sell out many big gigs by performing it. Only in his old age did Cage get the juicy commissions. But many people who have made good money from music learnt a lot from Cage.

Cage was such a radical innovator that the impact of Cage's ideas was not felt broadly for more than 14 years after much of his work was composed. Wouldn't it be nice to find some way to recompense those innovators who the world isn't quite ready for initially? Copyright may not be the best way to do this, but it's one of the only ways going.

People think it's dumb and easy to compose a 'silent' piece, but it was not. Nor, pace Professor Vaver and his tabloid-minded ridicule, is the idea of copyrighting the piece absurd on the grounds that 'you can't own silence.' This misses the point of the piece, part of which was that no performance has been, or ever could be, completely silent (read more here).

The fact that people from Steve Reich and Stephin Merritt to Mike Batt via Sonic Youth and John Lennon acknowledge some kind of debt — cultural or financial! — to Cage shows that his influence is felt far and wide.

Maybe, if he'd been better remunerated for his composition when alive, John Cage would have been able to do more of it and would have left even more influential works, making us all richer in the end. As a next best option, letting his work make money later on via copyright legislation seems to have some small justification. And didn't Mike Batt write the theme tune for the Conservative Party election campaign? Oh yes.

Guess where I'll be this weekend!

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Music and Multimedia on 16 January 02004 | TrackBack

I thought I would comment, before anyone else does, that the argument in this posting is among the most sloppy intellectually that you'll find on this site (feel free to add your other nominations!). The conclusions about longer copyright periods do not 'solve' the problem of recompensing John Cage during his lifetime and freeing him to do more of the work he wanted to do. And, anyway, it is a bit daft to pretend that you can create more or better Cages through any kind of legislation. That would be like trying to make better honey by changing the speed limit.

I now have my own copy of the sheet music for 4'33". I paid £4.95 for the 'original version in proportional notation' — this is different from the version that was originally published, if you follow me. The latter is available for £4.33 (a bit gimmicky if you ask me) from the Peters Edition web site.

Posted by: David Jennings on 18 January 02004 at 1:50 AM
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