Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Yes, You Can Copyright a Melody--But Suppose It's Also a Number?

Since yesterday was Pi Day, I was hoping to post something whimsical about that subject, and, true to form, some of my Facebook friends came through with a clever video they'd found on YouTube. It's a guy who took the first 31 digits of pi, assigned them the corresponding scale degrees in music, then turned that into a melody. He started out in eighth notes, then added other instruments at both slower and faster rhythmic subdivisions, which resulted in a really catchy tune. I linked to it on Facebook as well, as did several other friends. It even made its way onto TIME Magazine's website.

But when I sat down to blog about it this afternoon, I was quite dismayed to discover that the video had been taken down from YouTube "due to a copyright claim by Lars Erickson." Huh? Who is Lars, and why does he object to a melody made from pi?

Some quick research showed that Erickson is a composer who wrote a symphony based on pi back in 1992, and it just happened that he started with an eighth-note motif as well. But beyond that...the two pieces couldn't be more different, and in my opinion, the piece that got taken down, by a Canadian musician named Michael John Blake, was far more clever and interesting than the symphony. (I'm almost hesitant to give Ericksson any links, but you can follow a lot of the discussion and listen to part of the symphony here.

But this brings up a larger question: Can someone really copyright a melody if it comes from a fairly obvious source such as the world's most famous multi-digit number? And what about twelve-tone compositions? I'm sure more than one composer used the same tone row; if YouTube had existed in Schoenberg's day, would he have been demanding that other composers' videos be taken down if they used "his" row?

And while Erickson is certainly within his rights to copyright his entire work, it seems a little arrogant to attempt to include the concept of making a melody out of pi in the copyright. As YouTube commenter "marklandson" said,
It is clearly the role of copyright to protect creativity. Copyright does not protect anything that is obvious or discoverable through ordinary knowledge. In the case of “your” melody based on pi, the assignment of the digits of pi to the various notes of the scale is based on an ordinary and obvious system that literally countless other musicians have done over the years. You were certainly not the first to do it with the number pi. I myself did it before 1992.
Beyond the opening motif, the two works couldn't be more different. So was Erickson's blocking of Blake's video a jerky thing to do? (I didn't witness this myself, but evidently, the only bad move Blake is purported to have made was deleting comments to his video that referenced Erickson's work, though others have said the only comments Blake deleted were those that were rude or vulgar.)

Thankfully, the recording of the song that Blake placed at the iTunes store was still up as of tonight, so I snagged a copy, and it's a fun addition to my library. Meanwhile, I have no interest in Erickson's work (which, as I said, I consider far less interesting than Blake's in the first place), and I wonder how many potential fans he's lost today by being such a bad sport about all of this.

Meanwhile, there was one silver lining to all this: On the page with the since-removed video, Blake had links to his other projects, including a wonderful duo called Quebec Antique, featuring Blake and Andy Dollerson (the Canadian and the Brit met in Austin, by the way). Their music can be sampled at their Facebook page; evidently, it's reminiscent of a band called The Postal Service, which I'll also have to check out. I've already picked up this CD from eMusic, and it'll be the next thing I listen to in the Kevmobile.

UPDATE: Blake has a new video up where he explains his take on the situation and announces that he's filed a counter-claim. We'll keep following this story here as well.

1 comment:

Stephen Gashler said...

This issue almost frightens me in a claustrophobic kind of way. It illustrates how, in so many ways, copyright law can be inhibiting and counterproductive in the twenty-first century. It's becoming the antithesis of altruism, and I look forward to its demise.