Friday, August 10, 2012

Copying Is Not Theft: Barbershop Arrangement pt1

Over many years, my views on copyright have morphed and evolved in complex ways. At one point, I was a strong advocate for copyright. I registered my own published CDs with the Library of Congress, and I even bought multiple copies of CDs to sell to my friends when I wanted to share music. But the problems with copyright have become so absurd that I cannot defend the status quo any longer.

Over the years, I learned more about the complexities of the music industry, the inconsistencies with what is copyrighted and what isn't, the nature of music styles as almost entirely derived from common cultural heritage, the value of open culture and sharing, and the complexities of 21st century media… I changed my views pretty dramatically, but my ideas are still evolving. I have described the issues and  my philosophical position in an article called A Rational View of Copyright. I've continually updated the article since first writing in 2008, and I plan to reformat it soon, but it covers a wide range of issues.

Recently, I was singing with my casual barbershop quartet and we decided to try an arrangement of Shenandoah, a traditional American folk tune. It would be easy enough to make an arrangement, and the song is public domain, but I decided to order four legal copies of an arrangement from the Barbershop Harmony Society. When I got the sheet music, I was dismayed by obnoxious text printed over the notes stating "COPYING IS ILLEGAL."

First of all, copying is not illegal! The United States copyright law protects fair use. That means that I can legally make a backup copy for myself to archive. I can make a legal copy in order to write notes to myself without marking up the original. And I can legally copy this excerpt and show it here for the sake of this essay.

Secondly,  I paid for a legal copy of this music. Why is my copy defaced with this annoying mark‽ It makes it harder to read! This mark doesn't just discourage copying, it discourages buying and reading the legal copy in the first place!

Unfortunately, the Barbershop Harmony Society is a nice large target for copyright lawyers, so the BHS has taken a particularly strong position on copyright. Ironically, a huge portion of the songs that barbershoppers sing were written before 1923 and so are public domain, including Shenandoah. So barbershop benefits greatly from music being free to share and access. The main activities of barbershop singers include getting together at conventions and singing songs with each other, often teaching people new parts. Like other great participatory music traditions, barbershop embraces sharing and derivation. For this type of rich cultural experience, restrictive copyright is an extreme burden.

I was told by a chorus director recently that his chorus was singing some old song about an apple tree or cherry tree (I forget which). They wanted to switch the words from apple to cherry (or reverse, whichever it was) in order to fit it into the theme of some other songs for their concert. Being so hypersensitive about copyright (thanks to all the admonitions from the society), they contacted the copyright holder. After lots of effort they were denied permission. Despite my belief that the change they wanted is legal fair use, they chose not to go ahead with performing the word change.

Often the bureaucracy of copyright licensing is so bad that it is simply impossible to get anywhere. Read this short article about someone trying to legally license an arrangement of Don Henley's song Desperado.

All this got my thinking about Nina Paley's wonderful song, Copying Is Not Theft.
I decided this deserves a barbershop quartet arrangement, so I made one. Check out my arrangement in part 2.

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