Open source and open music

This is my notes from the talk I did at the 2009 Plone Conference in Budapest, reworked into a series of blog posts. This is part 3 of 3. Read part 1 and part 2 as well.

Who wrote what?

In previous posts I discussed how sharing of intellectual property is the basis for the improvements in all kinds of technology, and as a result the basis for the quality of life we enjoy today. So if sharing of intellectual property works for software, steam engines and medicine, is there any intellectual property where it doesn’t work? Well, the big debate today about intellectual properties is about file sharing. Well, lets first take a look on what the effects of the current non-openness is.

Take the song Happy Birthday, for example. It was written by Patty Hill in 1893, but with the lyrics “Good Morning to All” by her sister Mildred. It was a song kids where supposed to sing to their teacher at the beginning of the day. The earliest example we have of the melody together with the happy birthday lyrics is from 1912.However, in 1935, the song and it’s lyrics got a registered copyright to a company, crediting a well known composer called Preston Ware Orem, although he doesn’t seem to actually have claimed to write it. Currently Warner owns the copyright, which ends in 2030. Warner has the copyright, bought from somebody who didn’t write the song, while she who did write it didn’t get a nickel and died in 1916 anyway.

And for another example we can take well known Monty Python collaborator Neil Innes. He wrote the hit song “How Sweet to be an Idiot”.

Compare this with another even bigger hit, Oasis “Whatever”

Yes, the first bars are very similar. Not exactly the same, but very similar. But the rest of the melodies are completely different. And those bits that are similar are not exactly very complex, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other songs used pretty much the same melody even before Neil Innes. But in any case, Oasis got sued.

Another example is Bobby McFerrins “Don’t Worry Be Happy”.

Compare it to 4 Non Blondes “What’s up”.

Yeah, the songs are pretty much the same. And this time it’s all the way. But as far as I can find out, 4 Non Blondes has not been sued, and Bobby McFerrin has no co-writing credits. But then again, his lyrics goes “Here’s a little song I wrote, you might want to sing it note for note”, so I guess he can only blame himself.

How come one song that is only a little similar gets sued while one that is very similar doesn’t? The problem here is that there is no way to determine if a song is similar except going to court, and there it completely depends on how good your lawyers are. So copyright for music definitely has some problems.

Incremental improvements

One of the major arguments against patents I had was that innovation typically was done in small incremental steps. And one argument when it comes to music could be that music doesn’t work that way. But let’s listen to the riff that starts Rolling Stones 1965 hit “The Last Time”.

Then listen to how The Andrew Oldham Orchestra reinterpreted this song with strings some years later.

In 1997 The Verve used a sample from that song in their song “Bittersweet Symphony”. They also added the distinctive string section that is the hook that made this such a massive hit.

And recently New York DJ and Remix artist BEARBOT used that hook in a remix:

[No video. Here is an excerpt, and here is a link to the whole song on]

Obviously it’s subjective, but I personally think each step here is an improvement. Clearly, incremental improvement is possible. And musicians have always stolen good things from each other, and of course this incremental improvement is how popular music before the advent of recording worked. Folk music was always about taking the best things you heard and putting them together in new ways. Music is also a tower of babel, although a highly subjective one.

So, wait, wait, wait, wait, am I saying copyright should go away? Yeah, I think I am. But what should the poor artists make money from? Well, small struggling artists doesn’t sell much albums anyway, and make most of their income from shows and t-shirts, and big artists will sell a lot of albums anyway. And you can always rely on the fanaticism on fans.

Nine Inch Nails excellent Ghosts quadruple album was sold in various version. You can download Ghosts I for free. Ghosts II-IV costs 5 bucks as a download. You can buy the CD set for ten dollars (that’s what I did), or the deluxe edition for 75 dollars. There was also a ultra deluxe edition. Yes, was. It’s sold out, all 2500 copies, for 300 dollars each. Yeah, that’s 750.000 dollars in income, just from the ultra deluxe edition. And this is from a quadruple album of experimental instrumental electronic music. Not exactly your typical mainstream album, in other words.

The return to open source

But in open source we need copyright so we can put up licenses that means people can’t steal the code and are forced to share back, right? Well, first of all, licenses lead to complicated trouble. Take dtrace, which apparently is a great piece of unix software. But it’s CDDL license is apparently incompatible with GPL. So it hasn’t been ported to Linux, and exists only under OSX and BSD. So licenses are not only good.

And surprisingly, open source seems to work better the less you demand of people. You don’t need to demand that somebody gives back or behaves well. This is becase I don’t suffer from you not helping me. Intellectual property can be copied infinitly. Me sharing and idea with you doesn’t stop me from using it.

As mentioned, intellectual property works best if everyone shares. If you don’t want to share back even though you get to use my code, demanding that you do so is unlikely to make a difference. You don’t want to share, because you’re a dick. And you’ll continue to be a dick even if I demand that you aren’t. What I can do though, is make it dead easy for you to give back if you want to, by giving repository access to anyone, or using bitbucket, where anyone can make a fork, and then ask you to merge the changes back. Basically, instead of demanding that you are not a dick, I should make it easy for you not to be one.

So in conclusion, if people share their inventions, advances and intellectual property, everybody’s life gets better. Therefore I strongly suspect that all restrictions on sharing of intellectual property should be removed.

We humans can, and we are already, building a tower to the heavens. And what gets us there faster is more individual freedom. What we need most in this world is the freedom to collaborate if we think it’s in our individual and personal self-interest to do so. If we have that, then nothing we imagine to do will be impossible for us.


3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Jon said,

    Great musical analysis!

  2. 2

    Yes I like your thinking. I would likre to see more legislation against music patents.

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