The Revolution will be Plagiarized
Pablo Picasso is supposed to have said that "all art is theft". The idea may or may not be controversial, but the intention is clear. The creative process, which relies on the evolution of techniques, observation and criticism, is an assimilation of all that has gone before, and all creativity, whether artistic, technological or scientific, walks a thin line between innovation and originality, plagiarism and parody. Copyright is the mechanism by which art and music are protected from inappropriate use and reproduction, but copyright assumes a unique relationship between the artist and his work that isn't necessarily unique nor all-embracing. In the realm of art even the idea that art is theft is common place.
In the peculiar world of the art market, which exists at a remote tangent to the world of the artist, a painting is worth something, not necessarily for its intrinsic value, but because of its authorship. In the latter part of his life Picasso's reductive style was easy to forge, and many did. When he was asked how he felt when galleries and auction houses approached him to authenticate the pieces that carried his signature, he is reported to have said that if he liked them he said they were his, and if he didn't he turned them away.
Much of modern creative thought has defined itself in this way, by questioning the rites of originality, authenticity, authorship, and identity. This phenomenon dates back at least to the birth of Dada around the time of the First World War. The best known examples from this period were probably the throwaway works of Marcel Duchamp - such as L.H.O.O.Q. of 1919, which was a postcard reprint of The Mona Lisa on which Duchamp had scribbled a delicate mustache and goatee beard, and the ready made sculpture of 1917 of a detached urinal turned on its side, which he called Fountain, and signed R. Mutt.
Duchamp was against the very idea that aesthetics could be tied up and packaged and assigned a monetary value. The title of his reworking of The Mona Lisa, L.H.O.O.Q., is a colloquial pun on the French phrase "Elle a chaud au cul," which translates as "she's hot in the ass", and was meant to shock. The work had no surface value and was deliberately disposable. So much so that Duchamp was known to make copies on demand. In the spirit of Duchamp, and as a homage to his work, FranÃ§ois Picabia made a replica of L.H.O.O.Q. in The Art of Making Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in 1942, and the Spanish painter, Salvador Dali, created a self-portrait of himself in the image of The Mona Lisa, replacing Duchamp's scribbled mustache and goatee with a representation of his own idiosyncratic mustache, thus creating a parody within a parody. One of the many small ironies in this story is that Dali, the painter who is the embodiment of surrealism in the popular imagination, was despised by many of the surrealists and was known to them as Avida Dollars, after Breton's anagrammatic rendering of his name.
By the 1960s, Warhol's factory had turned the whole notion of authorship on its head. The later films of Andy Warhol were, for the most part, the original creations of Paul Morrissey, who wrote, produced, and directed them. Warhol contributed little more than his name which ran above the opening titles. Many of the silkscreen prints and paintings for which Warhol is most famous were based on appropriated images, and even then cannot definitively be said to be his own work. During a 1966 interview he turned to the interviewer, and said: "Why don't you ask my assistant Gerard Malanga some questions? He did a lot of my paintings."
The Highway Blues
The paradoxes of ownership and authorship of innovative and creative work lie at the heart of the debate about intellectual property rights and the ownership of ideas - a debate which echoes around the dark rooms and back corners of the Internet, and is a vital part of the culture that has evolved around the burgeoning number of gadgets with which we work, rest and play. At first glance the issues are simple. The films, songs, software, texts and images that we download from the Internet belong to somebody, "and should be paid for." Everywhere we look there are countless casual infringements of copyright by people using the Web as a free information exchange, swapping music, software, knitting patterns, photographs and texts that are all protected by existing copyright law. They are breaking the law, often without knowing they are.
The effects of this widespread ignorance of, or indifference to, the law, are not alike for all industries or every individual, and not all of them are as simple as they might appear. Copyright law protects the physical expression of an idea, not the idea itself, and serves to protect two classes of individual, the owner of the "intellectual property rights" and the creator of the original artifact. In many cases these individuals (or organizations) are not the same and the ultimate beneficiary is more likely to be the former than the latter. It is the latter that needs protection.
The crux of the problem is the artist's right to project a work of art as he or she sees fit. Too many industries are structured so that the 'intellectual property rights' are owned and sold on by the distributor, or middle man, rather than by the original creator of the artifact. Such is the case with the music industry, where in most cases the record companies own the rights to the recorded work, and the publishers own the rights to the song. The music industry assumes that it owns the rights to music and how it is played, and this assumption defines the parameters of our listening pleasure. The charts are predetermined and we hear what the record companies want us to hear. John Lennon once said that "music is everybody's possession. It's only publishers who think that people own it", and he should have known.
The Beatles may well have been the most successful band ever, and Lennon and McCartney the most successful composers, but their songs were signed away early (and in the 80s became the property of Michael Jackson, who purchased them against McCartney's wishes). Ever since, the surviving Beatles have fought long and hard to prevent their music from being exploited or commoditized for commercial interests - the most famous instance being the use of the Lennon and McCartney song Revolution by Nike to sell running shoes. But Lennon was speaking a wider truth, that music belongs to all of us, and was not invented by the recent titans of the music industry.
As Paul McCartney told Barry Miles many years later: "John and I didn't know you could own songs. We thought they just existed in the air. We could not see how it was possible to own them. We could see owning a house, a guitar or a car; they were physical objects. But a song, not being a physical object, we couldn't see how it was possible to have a copyright in it. And therefore, with great glee, publishers saw us coming."
"We just showed up, got out the car, went into this dark little house, and we just signed this thing, not really knowing what it was all about, that we were signing our rights away for our songs. And that became the deal and that is virtually the contract I am still under."
The Beatles' intellectual property rights, or rather those of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, were signed away with their first publishing contract, a situation many musicians will be familiar with. At that early stage in their careers they probably didn't have a choice. More importantly, few artists have the retrospective financial clout of the Beatles, or even Metallica, who led the campaign to bring Napster, the music filesharing company, to its knees.
As long as the publishers of printed works, and of music, control the outlets and the distribution, the artist has very little power. The power is in the ownership of the distribution media. It is no accident that most record labels are in the control of a handful of companies, and that those same companies manufacture the majority of the music players and recording machines on the market, but such is the current pace of technological change that there is no guarantee of the continuity of either ownership of the music, or of the means to record and play the music. Change is inevitable. The record industry of the last hundred years grew out of the invention of the phonograph and the shellac record, and the music of the next hundred years may rely on the gadgets and technologies of the present. Filesharing, digital transference and recording technologies are a liberating force for both musician and audience. The record industry has no choice but to adapt to the realities, or be blown away by the winds of change.
The Captain's Tower
Like whisky or water, music finds its own level and its own outlets, and isn't going to go away. Music has always been with us, and if the music industry dies tomorrow, music will continue by other means. The oldest known musical instrument, assumed to be of Neanderthal origin, is a flute that was found in the Mousterian cave deposits at Divje Babe, Slovenia, and is over 30,000 years old. Excavations at an early Neolithic site in Henan Province, China, have produced six complete (and playable) flutes which are dated to the period between 7000BC and 5700BC. Who knows what tunes were played on these instruments, and what songs were heard?
Since time began, wherever people have gathered they have found things to bash, strings to pluck and and reeds to blow, in celebration or in regret, in praise of gods or of love, of leaders of men, or to forget the world in which they live. Music springs eternal, and there have never been any rules except those imposed by local conventions. Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) wrote his most famous piece, the Quartet for the End of Time when interned in a German prison camp during World War II, where he had to write for the musicians and instruments available to him, a piano, a clarinet, a violin and a violoncello. Creating and playing music in such circumstances could not have provided lasting escape or relief from the everyday horrors of the camp, but in making music presumably the composer and musicians found a dream and a purpose that reached beyond their daily fight for survival.
Like all art forms, every piece of music is a stage in the evolution of a form, or as Schwarz and Hillel put it in The culture of the copy: Striking likenesses, Unreasonable facsimiles, 1996: "The history of art is the history of copy rites, of transformations that take place during acts of copying." Parallels and similarities to most pieces of music can be found in other music. The folk musics that have sprung from all corners of the world can sound surprisingly similar. There are modern country songs that have direct roots in Scottish folk songs of the sixteenth century. The songs have traveled through time, through the Appalachian mountains and into the current repertoire, but are often attributed on the record labels to the present artist or producer.
Making music, like making art or developing techniques in the art of programming, is an evolutionary process. In Country - The twisted roots of rock 'n' roll (1985), the rock journalist Nick Tosches recounts the long history of Black Jack David, a song that the rockabilly artist Warren Smith claimed to have written in 1956, and on which he collected songwriting royalties. The origins of Black Jack David can be traced back to the story of Orpheus in Plato's Symposium, which formed the basis of the popular 14th century ballad Sir Orfeo.
By the 17th century Orfeo had metamorphosed into Johny Faa in The Gypsie Laddie,. the English prototype for Black Jack David. According to Tosches the song reached the Americas by 1750. The Carter Family recorded a version in 1940, and T. Texas Tyler claimed the copyright of the song in 1939 - although an earlier version known as Black Jack Davy had been recorded in October 1929 by the wonderfully titled 'Professor and Mrs I.G.Greer'. Tosches notes: "The phrase 'Black Jack' meant different things in different Scottish and English dialects: cockroach, black leather vest, caterpillar, dark sweetmeat made of treacle and spice; its significance in the ballad title is lost", but the song has long been part of the culture wherever English is spoken or sung, gathering new meanings and parts that have been adapted, changed, added to or omitted along the way. Nonetheless, Warren Smith felt able to tell Tosches in the early 80s that Black Jack David was indisputably his own work.
Another popular song that is usually associated with American folk and country music of the Appalachians or the Ozarks, but has much older origins, is "the little Scotch song of Barbary Allen", a performance of which by Mrs. Knepp brought Samuel Pepys "perfect pleasure" on the evening of January 2, 1666. One hundred years later, in 1765, the poet Oliver Goldsmith was moved by "an old dairymaid [who] sung me into tears with The Cruelty of Barbary Allen." In more recent times the song, now known as Barbara Allen, or The Ode to Barbara Allen, has been performed by artists as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Merle Travis, John Travolta and Bob Dylan.
Dylan himself famously refashioned the tunes of the old English folk songs Lord Franklin and Scarborough Fair into Bob Dylan's Dream and Girl from the North Country, and translated the tune and theme of Dominic Behan's Patriot Game into With God on our Side. Behan had written The Patriot Game to remember the death of Feargal O'Hanlon, a 17-year-old IRA volunteer, in the attack on Brookeborough RUC Barracks on the night of 31 December, 1957. In 1986 Behan claimed that Dylan had taken the "music lock stock and barrel and very nearly the words" from The Patriot Game. "A complete parody", he wrote in the Guardian. "Some of the artists would like to be paid for their art."
Others claimed that the tune of The Patriot Game had been suggested by the tune of the older folk songs The Nightingale, or Paddington Green and The Grenadier And The Lady, and one correspondent, Geoff Wood, asserted unequivocally that "Dominic knows as well as I do that both he and Bob used the tune of a much older song, The Shores of Lough Erne. If anyone doubts this let them go along to the folk music club at the Marquis of Clanricarde not far from Paddington Station and ask Packie Byrne - who first heard the song before either Behan or Dylan were born - to sing it."
There is very little sanctity in the original creation of a piece. Many classical composers based their great symphonies on adaptations of traditional folk melodies, sometimes with attribution, sometimes not. Conversely, a large proportion of folk songs from the north east of England that are claimed as part of the folk tradition were composed by one of the two great nineteenth century balladeers, Joe Wilson and Tommy Armstrong, who wrote the songs to perform in their own music halls a century and a half ago. Art and music have always thrived on transformations of existing forms, and the pieces that are most famed for their transformative influence have often been adaptations of existing and recognizable forms - after all, as every pop fan knows, the greatest pop songs always sound familiar - even though you can never quite place where it was you heard that tune before.
Of its nature music is both ephemeral and eternal, transient yet permanently etched into our memories - which is not to say that musicians shouldn't have the right to their performances, or composers control over the exploitation of their creations. The Internet is an opportunity, not a threat. The revolution offered by the Internet is as profound as the invention of the phonograph, and can expand the potential for both the musician and the audience, just as the phonograph transformed the possibilities for music in an earlier age. And this revolution owes nothing to the music industry or its formats. The Internet appeals to the user's desire to be free, and to exploit the potential of that freedom. As Kris 'Thrash' Weston, formerly of the techno band The Orb, puts it: "God sent P2P to deliver us from the banality of what has been stuffed down our throats, through the one medium which canâ€™t be controlled.â€ The medium appeals to the artist because it offers direct communication with the audience, and a means of sidestepping the middleman and the record company. For all the huffing and puffing, neither the content nor the software industries can dis-invent the technologies of the last few years.
The Mystery Tramp
It follows that the real danger to the music industry is not that a student here or a teenager there may download an MP3, at a theoretical cost to the musician or the record labels, but that public IP networks and digital technologies that enable the copying and transmission of digitized works of music are a very real threat to the industry's reason for being. The music industry of the last hundred years grew out of a technological revolution in the early part of the 20th century when, for the first time, it became possible to reproduce the sound of orchestras in your living room. People bought records by the million and have continued to do so ever since. It could have been argued, and probably was, that this would be detrimental to live music because who would pay to see live music when they could play the real thing at home? The record industry was killing live music.
More likely, the distribution of music over the airwaves and on vinyl resulted in a better informed listening public who went out and listened to more music of greater variety than they might have done before. And, incidentally, bought more records as well. Certainly, one detrimental effect is that less people made their own music and many local folk musics from around the world have probably lost some distinctive edge as a result. On the other hand, many of the musicians who have become household names picked up their instruments and learned to play after listening to records on the radio - sometimes with unlikely results. King Sunny Ade, the prince of Nigerian Juju music, once attributed his inspiration to listening to Jim Reeves and Victor Sylvester on the BBC World Service in his youth. "Music is like water", he says, "You can add sugar, cola, orange, as long as its water, it's free. But you can't add politics." His sound owes much to his unlikely musical influences. "Jim Reeves, Don Williams, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson," he says. "When I wanted to change the African violin to something modern, I listened to their country steel guitar, the way it flows and I thought why can't I introduce that? I so much love it."
Tape recorders and public transmission of music over the radio and by other means have always been seen as a threat to the record industry. During the 1970s the Musicians Union in Britain issued a sticker that claimed "Home Taping Is Killing Music". This sticker appeared everywhere, from walls and album covers to guitars and drum cases, during an era when the music industry was more powerful than it had ever been, driven as usual by radical forces that the traditional elements had done their best to resist - a cultural explosion of new and diverse forms, garage bands, psychedelia, jazz fusion, punk, folk rock, new wave, reggae - artists that composed their own music and disregarded Tin Pan Alley and the variety shows, the traditional routes to success in the music industry. Everything was out of step with the recognized way of doing things, and the end result was that the 60s and 70s were the most profitable period in the history of recorded music. But still the claim was made that home recorded cassettes meant less records sold, presumably because they were cheaper than the packaged article, and that less people would go to see live music. But record sales kept climbing, and the popular forms of music kept churning around.
Homemade cassette tapes, in all likelihood, spread the word. The tape that somebody made for you spurred you into buying the real thing, and not the opposite. Not only were the home made tape copies of vinyl recordings illegal, but there was a booming industry in illicit recordings of studio, stage and home performances, that had no justification other than the hunger of the acolytes who studied and worshiped every bum note. These tapes became legendary, and many have since been officially released, selling in their millions to all those people who once owned the bootlegs. The record industry, astride the greatest boom in its history, spent most of its time trying to wrestle back control from the independent artists and producers, back to the controlled and manufactured product it understands best. But the often substandard bootleg recordings and tapes contributed to the mystique of the artists, and spread the word.
Speaking as someone who was once an avid collector of bootlegs, there was a time when I had an assignation with a particularly paranoid and fretful bootlegger in a coffee shop in Victoria Station. He was hyperactive, furtive and wary of my every move. We swapped an envelope filled with money under the table, and he insisted that I wait until he was well and truly gone before I left with the box he had left discreetly by the table. I went home with a large box of records - illicit recordings of home tapes of Dylan, studio acetates, live performances, songwriting demos and basement tapes - The Phantom Engineer, Talking Clothesline Blues, and the version of Can you Please Crawl Out Your Window? with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper that didn't make it onto the single - and never looked back. Discovering the bootlegs of Dylan was for me like my first discovery of GNU/Linux and free software, Slackware, Red Hat or Debian, perhaps illicit and surprising, certainly refreshing and awakening.
It wasn't just that the recordings were on scratchy vinyl, or that Red Hat or Slackware came on unlabeled floppies or CDs, but the records, the songs, GNU and Linux, opened my eyes to another world of possibilities.
If Windows was music for those who didn't like music, and Apple was soft rock for the settled and comfortable, then GNU/Linux was music that asked questions of you and took you to another place, like Messiaen's Quartet at the End of Time or Bob Dylan's Desolation Row, Townes van Zandt's Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas or John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Reality was a scratchy bootleg on the fringes of conventional custom and taste. It was rare and hard to find, and we turned a blind eye to the ripples and flaws and bumps and crackles, and listened for the phrase that made the difference. I owned all of Dylan's records, as if that mattered anyway. We were tasting everything that we would later buy into.
During the 60s and 70s the music industry was booming. Music symbolized the culture of the age, and was the soundtrack to our lives. The names of the age still dominate our culture, and still speak to us across the years, of youth and rebellion and attitudes to change. During the 80s and early 90s, there was a mini boom that resulted from the replacement of vinyl with CDs as the baby boomers replaced their lost collections. But during the last few years, the music industry has been hitting a downturn, amid claims that this is because of the Internet. Music lovers downloading MP3s are "killing music". Almost certainly, the truth is more simple and more complicated than that. Music is no longer the dominant force in youth culture that it was during the record industry's heyday. There are many other forms of entertainment, and the young no longer depend upon music for the expression of their aspirations and desires. The landscape that was the preserve of popular music has been invaded by football stars and computer games, TV soaps and electronic dance, and society is at once more liberal and less adventurous. Music itself has changed. Teenagers are as likely to be playing with decks and synthesizers and samples as they are to be thrashing air guitars in front of mirrors or downloading MP3s. We may as well blame Cubase, Doom and Reality TV for the impending death of the record industry.
Downturns in the music industry have always coincided with those periods when the industry has pushed down the lid on independent creativity, producing manufactured bands in their own image. It could be argued that the record industry is killing music all by itself, by ignoring the reality that its primary market has always been among young adults, who invent their own crazes, and are not attracted by manufactured pop. The music that continues to sell, long after the artists' careers are over, is seldom the music of the one hit wonders, or the vacuous pop music that the industry wants to promote. Neither Robert Johnson nor Bix Beiderbecke were highly valued by their record companies during their lifetimes, yet both have become long distance best sellers, and have outlasted their long forgotten contemporaries.
The music that has appealed to the core audience in many parts of the world during the last two decades or more has been electronic dance and trance music, the popularity of which probably owes more to a subterranean drug culture than it does to the music industry, and which survives as a parallel culture outside the traditional outlets. Most of it is produced on home studios by autonomous artists and producers. This is a rebellion in itself, and works against the tradition that the music industry understands, which is the star system, where a select few performers, (who are sometimes musicians), make undreamed-of riches, and the great majority struggle to survive against the grain. The myth of rock music, of working class heroes and street fighting men, doesn't hold much water in a world where Elton John is a dame of the British Empire, and Madonna seeks to exclude ramblers from the rolling acres of her English country estate. In our celebrity culture, the makers of music have lost their aura and are no longer weavers of myths and dreams for our appreciation and survival.
Rather than embrace the challenge of the Internet and the vagaries of youth culture, the response of the corporate bodies that control the music, proprietary software and film industries, has been to sponsor a series of controversial laws through the US Congress and European Parliament, designed to inhibit the free exchange of copyrighted material across the Internet.
Nomads of the Web
"Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity", says David Bowie. "So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left. It's terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn't matter if you think it's exciting or not; it's what's going to happen."
Of course, for the great majority of musicians, touring and playing before live audiences has always been the only realistic option, but perhaps that isn't the point. The more successful performers of the past 100 years have depended on their returns from record sales and not on live appearances.
Before the invention of the printing press and the upheavals of the industrial revolution, human society depended almost exclusively on oral communication. One hundred and twenty years ago we didn't have the electric light or the phonograph. Photography was a new and rare technology, and everything we take for granted in our lives today, central heating, hot and cold running water, flushing toilets, fridges, cars, radio, and TV had yet to be invented, or was out of the reach of the average citizen.
The new technologies are redefining the possibilities for information exchange and the dissemination of ideas, and how we respond to them. Copyright law in the western world followed the invention of the printing press, to protect the rights of the original creator. The music industry followed the invention of the phonograph, and copyright law was adapted to protect the physical representation of a musical performance.
The digital revolution, if it is to fulfill its promise as a universal resource for all, requires a new vision and a new understanding of how ideas are owned and shared, so that new industries can evolve that work in sympathy with the new realities. During the 20th century there has been a steady movement by corporate bodies to use copyright law, and its kin, patent law, (which is a very different animal), as tools to lock down the ownership of ideas. Intellectual property law may have been conceived to protect the rights of the little man, the individual creator, against the appropriation of ideas and inventions by corporate interests, but in the real world this is no longer the case. Intellectual property is big business and the little man seldom gets a look in.
"Piracy is the act of stealing an artist's work without any intention of paying for it. I'm not talking about Napster-type software. I'm talking about major label recording contracts" - Courtney Love.
The cash return to the individual artist on each unit sold within the record industry is minuscule, and the industry has always been rife with rags to riches and back to rags stories, a characteristic that it shares with another traditional meat for entertainment industry, boxing. Only the strong survive, and even Muhammad Ali, the greatest of them all, is the worse for wear. The truth about the content industries is that control of copyright is owned not by the individual artist or performer but by the corporate entity. Change is always resisted, usually by those who have most to lose, sometimes by those who have most to gain. The music industry, like other monolithic institutions, has resisted every change that has come along until there has been no alternative but to accept the inevitable.
During the last hundred years the music industry has been subject to continuous upheaval and change. The one constant has been the control of the distribution channels. The Internet offers alternative and unparalleled outlets for musicians and artists, to achieve what has not been achieved in 100 years of the record industry: control of their own work, and control of the means of distribution.
To record at home costs less and less. To publish a document or a piece of music on the Internet costs very little. The shellac and the vinyl, the CDs and the cassette tapes are not needed now. The true potential of the medium is to bypass the middleman altogether - and wave the record industry qoodbye..
"A good composer does not imitate; he steals" - Igor Stravinsky
"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal" - T. S. Eliot
"My dream in music is to hear the sound of Picasso's guitars" - Jean Cocteau