Who are the authors of a hit record? Legally, there are the two. The songwriting copyright is automatically owned by the songwriter(s); the sound recording copyright is usually owned by the record company.
But what about Roland Barthes? He tells us that ‘a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation’. He’s writing about writing, but his post-structuralist theory can also be applied to music. Rosemary Coombe suggests that ‘no area of human creativity relies more heavily upon appropriation and allusion, borrowing and imitation, sampling and intertextual commentary’. These ideas automatically call copyright laws into question: if writing and music draw on such a diverse array sources, how can anyone claim ownership of them?
Barthes’ interest lies elsewhere, though. His response to sampling is tell us that there is only ‘one place’ where the multiple strands of a text can be focused: this is in ‘the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author’. There is no single meaning to any given work; there are many meanings. We shouldn’t look at the intentions of the writers; we should look at the responses of the readers instead.
Fine. But popular music is received both individually and collectively. It is consumed in the privacy of headphones and in the commune of the gig. Its meanings are forged individually and collectively too. While listeners can have their own private associations with particular songs, audiences can adopt songs en masse and transform them or amplify their meanings. This is most apparent with YouTube phenomena such as ‘Harlem Shake’, but there is a sense in which all hit songs are taken over by their fans.
Artists acknowledge this too. Those who are lucky enough to have had hits often talk of the fact that the songs don’t feel like their own any more. They have turned them over to their public to do with what they will. The irony here is that the more that the public starts to ‘author’ a song, the more the copyright owners profit from it.
And so, should the copyright laws be changed so that hits are fast-tracked towards the public domain? Despite Barthes’ advice, our attachment to authorship is strong. The attachment of the law is stronger still. Nevertheless, there is evidence that people feel that certain well-known songs should be theirs. A case in point is ‘Happy Birthday’, which can prompt outrage when people find out that it is still in copyright. What’s more, one area of legal policy acknowledges the public’s authorial role. When it comes to privacy laws the famous have to abide by different criteria to the rest of us. This is on the grounds that ‘if you choose to go into an arena where you get fame and maybe fortune, then your name and reputation is a matter of public interest and public property’. If we can have a share of someone’s reputation, then why not have a share of their hits?