Yes, the Greeks Were the First Music Industry Police: 2000 Years of Copyright Law
by on August 1, 2019 in articles DIYmusician Music Industry

Most Greeks say they “invented everything”. Well, it appears, we Greeks were also behind the first attempts to police music as well.

The Music Modernization Act of 2018 was a great reform to existing copyright laws and may help artists get paid more and have an easier time collecting money they are owed. But few know the issues behind copyrights, piracy, theft and royalties have been going on for over 2000 years.

I came across a fascinating book, “Theft: A History of Music” a “graphic novel,” written by two law professors about the history of music, of musical borrowing, from Plato to rap. The book was researched, written and graphically designed by James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins and released by The Center for the Study of the Public Domain.

The authors state:

“Again through history, there had been numerous attempts to police music; to restrict borrowing—for reasons of philosophy, religion, politics, race—again and again, race—and law. And because music affects us so deeply, those fights were passionate ones. They still are. The history runs from Plato to Blurred Lines and beyond. And to understand the history of musical borrowing, one had to spin the story out still further—into musical technologies (from notation to the sample deck), aesthetics, the incentive systems that got musicians paid, and law’s 250-year long struggle to assimilate music. This is that story. It is assuredly not the history of music. But it is definitely a part of that history and, we think, a fascinating one

Music builds on itself. To those who think that mash-ups and sampling started with YouTube or a DJ’s turntables, it might be shocking to find that musicians have been borrowing—extensively borrowing, consciously and unconsciously—from each other since music itself began. We don’t mean simple copying— the reproduction of an entire song. We mean the borrowing and cultural cross-fertilization that creates more music. Church musicians borrowing from troubadours. The Marseillaise quoted in the 1812 Overture. The African polyrhythms that came to the United States during slavery. The fragment of another tune in a jazz solo. Whether it is the rhythm and blues and country music that built rock and roll, the fusion of blues and gospel that made soul music, or the wall of sound in early rap, the lines of borrowing and cross-fertilization go on and on.”

It is a fascinating account and a fun way to learn about music copyright and law.

The history in this book runs from Plato to Blurred Lines and beyond. You will read about the Holy Roman Empire’s attempts to standardize religious music with the first great musical technology (notation) and the inevitable backfire of that attempt. You will read about troubadours and church composers, swapping tunes (and remarkably profane lyrics), changing both religion and music in the process. You will see diatribes against jazz for corrupting musical culture, against rock and roll for breaching the color-line. You will learn about the lawsuits that, surprisingly, shaped rap. You will read the story of some of music’s iconoclasts—from Handel and Beethoven to Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ray Charles, the British Invasion and Public Enemy.

Ancient Greek Music

The book also has a great reference section with audio clips. One interesting find was the audio “Fragments of Ancient Greek Songs from the Early Empire” by William A. Johnson from the Department of Classical Studies at Duke University.

This early ii AD papyrus contains the sort of musical notation sometimes used by professional singers in antiquity. In between the lines of Greek text can be seen symbols which resemble ancient Greek letters but which are in fact vocal musical notation. The papyrus is a fragment from what was apparently a collection of songs for performance, intended for a baritone voice with a wide range.

Click the image to go to the site and listen to two ancient greek songs

early ii AD papyrus

“Remember that to the ancient Greeks, music was part of a set of universal forms…a deep logic of the universe which combined geometry and sound, ethics, politics and beauty.”

This is the point to which, above all, the attention of our rulers should be directed, –that music and gymnastic be preserved in their original form, and no innovation made. They must do their utmost to maintain them intact. And when any one says that mankind most regard

The newest song which the singers have, they will be afraid that he may be praising, not new songs, but a new kind of song; and this ought not to be praised, or conceived to be the meaning of the poet; for any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited. So Damon tells me, and I can quite believe him;-he says that when modes of music change, of the State always change with them.

Yes, said Adeimantus; and you may add my suffrage to Damon’s and your own.

Then, I said, our guardians must lay the foundations of their fortress in music?

Yes, he said; the lawlessness of which you speak too easily steals in.

The Republic, Book 4 – Plato (p. 312)

Some pages from the book about ancient Greece.

Some Interesting Facts

The book is over 250 pages, it takes a while to read. Below I have chosen some of the parts I found interesting. Maybe inspire you to download the book and read it. It was a great way to fill in gaps in my knowledge of music history and get a greater understanding of how complicated the music copyright situation really is.

Theft: A History of Music is available as a paperback, and for free download under a Creative Commons license.

Many of you have asked me for advice on how to release an album or single as an independent artist. For five years, with each release, I gathered a list of the basic essentials. I want to share this “checklist” with you.

Though every album release is unique. There are basic requirements and steps in common with all releases across all genres. To distribute your music, attract a fanbase and receive payments, there is a lot of paperwork. You must make plans and do research.

If you are an independent musician, you might not have a lot of free time, a label or street team.

This e-book is a checklist I wish I had when I released my first EP. There is no commentary or fluff in this list. It contains the bullet points, precise links and instructions. It is a starting place for your release and an introduction to some music biz basics.

It will help you level the playing field and get heard in the crowd. It will save you hundreds of hours of research and give you more time to do what you love—making music.

It’s available on Amazon Kindle (left) and this website (right) for the price of a cup of coffee.

So, let’s put aside the guitar, bass or those drumsticks for a while – and let’s focus on getting this necessary work done.

Wish your album or single be a great success! And, your music heard and appreciated by enthusiastic fans around the world.


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