Why breaching Copyright is so wrong – understanding Intellectual Property

From a couple of Q asked on Quora asking why:

  • making derivative works – chewing up someone else’s song – was not ok (asked in tones suggesting it should be ok – with no cost attached)
  • the usual one-eyed, won’t we all get sued seeing every note or every melody has been done before

This was my answer:

Mmmm Brains

Forget Copyright and think in terms of Intellectual Property. Intellectual Property (I.P.) is acknowledging that a thing does not need to be a physical object to be the acknowledged work of the mind of a person. This is increasingly important in a world driven more & more by brains over brawn.

#1, no one ever gets sued for using the same three notes that someone else used. People get sued for duplicating the overall essence of a track.

Otherwise, I could clone “Hotel California”, change one note and then pretend I hadn’t breached copyright. I could have a hit based on everyone already liking the essence of the original song but get all the profits (coin & accolades). Wrong!

The reason I would be sued back into the stone age (where I would belong) is that:

  1. I didn’t ask permission. The song belongs to the writers (and probably a publishing house). They have a right in how their possessions get used. Not asking is disrespectful.
  2. If I give the impression that my amazing new hit is my work and my work alone then I am taking credit from the person who did all the heavy lifting. That is not only disrespectful but contrary to the way the creative world works.
  3. If I gain an advantage to myself by using the work but do not pay for it, it is as much stealing as having someone come to my house, installing a swimming pool and then declining to pay them whilst I sun myself sipping a G&T. They put in the work. I get the benefit. They MUST be paid.

Nothing says you cannot use the work of others as a springboard. There are systems in place for this as it benefits all when someone does a cool cover of an older song. Or even when an act builds a new song on the hook or bones of another (like Vanilla Ice “Ice Ice Baby” or The Verve “Bittersweet Symphony”). it is only a problem when people don’t follow the conventions so they profit from the work of another without giving credit.

The creative world works on Credits. A strong credit gets you more work. A lack of credits harms your ability to get work. Credits bring ongoing income (as “Hotel” is paying bills 40+ years later). This is correct as art is speculative to a great extent.

If you were a singer and heard that a writer was getting hits for people, would you want their songs? Yes. They are worth more. The songwriter may ask an up-front fee. You pay it based on the gamble that their song will help you get where you wouldn’t without that song. That would be based on their proven success. The songwriter will also be entitled to residuals – payments based on ongoing consumption of that work over time. This is correct as every time that song is heard it adds value to the listener (or the advertiser using it to make you feel something based on the history or feel of that work).

A song is consumed many times over despite not necessarily having a physical existence. Yet the song exists as factually as does a cup of coffee. Each cup of coffee (or beer) gets paid for because it adds value to the listener to the consumer. This is never in debate with coffee. It should never be in debate with music. Each time you choose to listen to a song (or play it for others) you are saying that you want the value that this song brings you. This must be credited.

Breaching I.P. undoes all of that. It may not seem to affect you today but it will affect you soon enough when the whole system that encourages amazing art collapses (as I think we have seen in the last 20 years after the value of I.P. was denied by mp3 sharing and then unpaid streaming).

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