‘Riffed’ Off

What do these three groups and individuals have in common?

What do these three groups and individuals have in common?

What do The Beatles, U2 and Bob Marley have in common? Even for those of you who are as musically ignorant as me, flabbergasted to discover that classical composer Bach was elegantly pronounced like the wood of a tree as opposed to the very Australian BATCH, you would immediately recognise the previously named groups and individuals as popular musicians. Artists of the medium of silence and sound that provides the background melody to our lives.

Whilst you may idolise each band for their individual talents- perhaps Bob Marley for his reggae rhythm and U2 for their rocking riffs-you may not be aware that many of their most popular hits, and in fact almost ALL of the greatest hits of the past 40 years, are based on the same four chords. Take a listen.

Welcome to remix culture.  A world of “combing and editing existing materials to provide something new”. A world that lives by the French concept of ‘detournement’- changing the direction of a previous media work until meanings are subverted and  ‘re-contextualised’. Facilitated by an explosion of technologies created for modifying and distributing these media works, Lawrence Lessig explains that we have shifted from a Read/Only culture, in which we passively consume media content such as music, to a Read/Write culture in which consumers can actively “re-create the culture around them”.

In a previous blog I discussed the benefits of a collaborative approach towards creativity. We see further by “standing on the shoulders of giants” as Isaac Newton stated. If we relate this idea to the remix culture of music it is easier to understand the necessity of “borrowing” from previous works. Music is an unpredictable industry in which commercial success is not guaranteed. Exploratory works risk failure, whilst remixing previous songs provides an insurance policy- if it worked before, it will work again. The Amen Break and the 4 Chord progression are only two examples of riffs that have been continually remixed by various artists over the years due to their ongoing success in pop-culture. Furthermore, amateur musicians such as Justin Bieber take their first shaky steps towards fame by producing covers of songs, by COPYING.

So while many may argue that U2 ‘riffed off’ the Beatles, Bob Marley, or vice versa, the truth is that this process has been happening on all levels of the music industry since the days of Bach. It is essential to its evolution. Audiences are comfortable with the familiar; we like what we know and, like spoilt children, are hesitant to try something new. Only by building on the success of other artists can musicians guarantee the ongoing popularity of modern compositions.

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Oppression vs. Expression


Does copyright inspire expression or oppression?

Copyright. A life sentence. A guarantee to preserve an original published idea. But at what cost? Does the exponential growth of the term of copyright serve to encourage expression or harbour oppression? And what significance does originality now hold in the realm of the big © as we continue down the path of technological convergence?

Copyright is paradoxical in nature.  As William Patry points out, in Steve Collins’ article Recovering Fair Use, it was designed to “encourage learning and the creation of new works”, however now serves to “supress models and technologies”. The original protection granted by copyright (14 years monopoly) was designed to foster creativity, providing an incentive for budding authors with the promise of exclusive rights, assets and recognition. However as the term of copyright continues to grow, its purpose has become blurred. In the past, many revolutionary works built on the ideas of their predecessors – as Isaac Newton stated, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (1676).  Although Newton expresses that progression in knowledge and a desire to ‘look further’ stems from collaboration, copyright now restricts works from entering the public domain for at least 70 years after the author’s death- denying prospective authors access to the works of their colleagues and thus to a collaborative approach to creation.

We have been left to rely on our own imagination. But as Emerson Davis points out in Recovering Fair Use “few, if any things, are strictly original throughout. Every book in literature, science and art borrows and must necessarily borrow” . Although we like to think we’re unique (or uni-que as my the title of my blog page suggests), it is guaranteed that almost every inspired idea has been considered before, or that we are basing our work, as Newton describes, on preconceived notions. So what does this mean for copyright? Simply- first in best dressed.   Take the case of Joe Satriani vs. Coldplay- the grammy-winning Viva la Vida used a riff almost identical to one in Satriani’s If I Could Fly. A breach of copyright or a concurrent inspiration?  An out of court settlement was reached, with financial compensation granted to Satriani. Because Coldplay copied…right?

Clearly it is necessary to redefine the intent of copyright to ensure an expressive rather than oppressive creative environment is maintained. Thankfully with the introduction of utilities such as Creative Commons, we are beginning to complement our modern sharing culture and “collaborate across time and space” (S. Collins, 2008) . The jail bars begins to rise.

Picture sourced from http://rosemaryl.blogspot.com.au/2009/10/jail-break-please.html