Musings on Copyright, Creativity and Culture

[Warning to readers: this post contains links to long videos and stuff about classical music]

My colleague and fellow blogger Michael Wright wrote earlier this week about a TED talk this summer on the irrationality of copyright laws applying to ideas (and to music). WRCJ woke me up this morning with a piece I’d never heard before, Beethoven’s ‘Twelve Variations on “See here the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, WoO 45 (for Cello and Piano)‘. If you’re a classical music fan you might know the original:

See here the conqu’ring hero comes

and Beethoven liked the tune so much he remixed it:

Beethoven Variations…

In fact, Beethoven did this quite a bit. There’s a very famous seduction scene in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where the guy usually known as Don Juan is hitting (successfully, as you can see) on a woman about to get married (to someone else, of course…):

Concert version with beautiful voices

Remarkable version with Sting as Don Giovanni

And here’s what Beethoven wrote:

Variations on La Ci Darem

You may have seen that Apple won an enormous settlement against Samsung because Apple argued that Samsung stole large hunks of the iPad interface (if you haven’t heard about it here‘s a good summary).

This, of course, wasn’t the first controversial use of other’s material within the modern, digital context. Early hip-hop artists used pieces of others works to form the basis for bass lines, for example, leading to lawsuits and other unpleasantness (Wikipedia has a nice summary of the controversy).

As I write this Chris Felcyn is in the middle of his mid-day program The Well-tempered Wireless, a take-off on Bach’s musical masterpiece The Well-Tempered Clavier. Should WRCJ pay Bach’s descendents for making fun of the name?

What, do you suppose, would have happened to Beethoven (1770-1827) if Mozart (1756-1791)  or Handel (1685-1769) had been like Apple and sued? Of course, in eighteenth-nineteenth century Europe music wasn’t copyrighted quite that way. Note, incidentally, that it wouldn’t have mattered whether either Mozart or Handel were alive in Beethoven’s time–in contemporary America copyright lasts for seventy years beyond the death of the author.

I have come increasingly to believe that copyrighting intangible objects is a category error, because intangible objects are not property. They are not scarce, and production of an additional one does not affect the owner of the original (unlike, say, cars, where I don’t have my car if you take it). There’s an extensive literature on this, and I’m pretty much convinced that when large companies sue each other it’s primarily because they’ve forgotten how to produce innovative products that people would want to buy. Naming no names, of course.