Copyright is racist. It’s an emotive argument, but one that has been employed frequently by music academics. The thinking goes something like this: music copyright has it roots in print culture and thus favours elements that can be captured in notation, such as melody and harmony. These musical characteristics are at the forefront of the western art music tradition. In contrast, musical qualities that are central to black music, such as rhythm, ‘feel’ and record production, are poorly protected by copyright. Consequently, white musicians, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Marty McFly, have felt free to borrow from black music and to profit from what they have taken. Simon Frith, for example, has stated that:
Copyright law defines music in terms of nineteenth-century Western conventions and is not well suited to the protection of Afro-American musicians’ improvisation art or rhythmic skills.
Although there is a basic truth to this theory, it is not without is own problems. It reinforces stereotypes: black musicians are depicted as being rhythmic rather than literary; black music as the product of the community rather than artistic genius. It also ignores the fact that much black music is supremely melodic and harmonic. In addition, it should be noted that some black musicians have a nuanced understanding of copyright law and have used it strategically. Herbie Hancock shrugged off accusations that the version of ‘Watermelon Man’ on Headhunters is heavily indebted to a recording from the Central African Republic, by invoking the racist nature of copyright:
we’re the people who’ve lost the most, who’ve had the most stolen from us. We know what it means to come up with, you know, a sound or a tune, then to have it copped and turned into a big hit or something like that. We’ve been through all of that. But this isn’t like that. This is a different thing, you see, brothers, we’re all making African music, that’s what I’m talking about.
Employing a different tactic, we now have Pharrell Williams, who has shown that ‘Blurred Lines’ owes nothing to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up’ by employing the biases of musical notation:
If you read music, all you have to do is read the sheet music. It's completely different. Anybody that plays music and reads music, just simply go to the piano and play the two. One's minor and one's major. And not even in the same key.
Hmm. YouTube views of ‘Blurred Lines’ are currently hovering around the 225 million mark and the recording has been number one in 14 different countries. How many people are consuming this song via its printed score?