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.