Sincere flattery?

In 1976 there was a landmark copyright infringement case taken in the United States by Bright Tunes Music against Harrisongs Music. This involved the claim that ex-Beatle George Harrison in his song My Sweet Lord had copied the basic musical structure of the earlier song He’s So Fine, sung by the Chiffons and written by Ronald Mack. The plaintiffs won the case and were awarded damages by the court.

Actually, if you listen to both songs it is immediately clear that they are remarkably similar. It is generally accepted that George Harrison did not deliberately plagiarise – in fact, My Sweet Lord in its origins was something of an improvisation – but was probably subliminally influenced by the earlier song. Technically however, it was certainly a copyright infringement. The question is, should it have mattered at all?

My purpose here is not to get into the details of musical composition. There is in fact a school of thought that every possible musical sequence has long been composed, and that all that anyone can now do is copy something or other, either deliberately or unconsciously. No matter. But can we ask the same questions of academic endeavour? Has every argument now been made, and is it really still worthwhile insisting that the only respectable material is whatever you thought up independently? Should we shift the focus somewhat from original discovery to better communication of ideas and research?

Some of this has been the subject of discussion in the United States, and an article in the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education asks some questions about it all. It quotes American author Marcus Boone:

‘I came to recognize that many of the boundaries we have set up between activities we call ‘copying’ and those we call ‘not copying’ are false, and that, objectively, phenomena that involve copying are everywhere around us.’

It would be hard to re-consider the merits of copyright without addressing other forms of intellectual property, in particular patents, the purpose of which is to allow discoveries to be appropriately monetised as a way of recovering the costs of discovery. Is copyright different? And if it is different, are we barking up the wrong tree when we punish students for plagiarism?

The idea that ideas are public property once articulated has a kind of hippy-ish attraction to it, and I guess this might apply even more to music. But I suspect it would not be easy to say that you cannot protect and sell your ideas, and that you have no right to be (and remain) credited with what you have developed. But it is also clear that intellectual property now operates in a very different environment from when it was developed, and at the very least it should be re-assessed in terms of its functionality in the internet age.

I don’t think I am the first person to say this, by the way, but I cannot be bothered to find out who raised the issue first. He or she should feel duly (but anonymously) credited herewith.

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3 Comments on “Sincere flattery?”

  1. Anomynous Says:

    In industry, good practise would be to investigate and copoy what has been published and then start and build your own ideas. It seems a more efficient process rather than insist on all orginal ideas.

    Should we spend more time teaching where to find reliable sources, proper citiation rather than simply teaching that plagerism not acceptable.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    Issues about copyright or copyleft (see a definition at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyleft)are obviously bound up with ‘romantic’ concepts of originality and authorship (major areas of enquiry within media studies and not just). As Goethe poignantly observed ‘Everything has been thought of, the difficulty is in thinking of it again’


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