Is Originality an Illusion?

On their second album echolyn has a multipart suite that chronicles their struggle to make their kind of music in a world that doesn’t really appreciate it. An early section is called “Only Twelve,” a reference to the fact that the Western musical scales only has 12 tones. It’s not that diverse a palate to work with. A later section, however, suggests that’s not the right way to think about it. It’s called “Twelve’s Enough.”

But recent evidence suggests that 12 might not really be enough. As this article lays out, more and more pop artists are getting sued for lifting bits of music from other sources (Ed Sheeran, whose music I couldn’t pick out of a sonic lineup, appears to be a great transgressor). This is not likely to be a result purely of coincidence:

[quote]Bennett [a forensic musicologist – JDB] then goes very deep into the maths, proposing a scenario where he and I each decide to write a melody. ‘I might start on C and you might start on E – two of the seven notes in the major scale. The odds [against us choosing the same note] aren’t exactly one in seven, but you get the idea. Then you come to the second note: I might choose D, you might choose another E. So then we’ve got a seven to the power of two probability, and that’s just within two pitch choices.’[/quote]

The analysis goes much deeper but as you can see from just two notes, the probabilities don’t look good for coincidence. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise. We interact with art – music, literature, you name it – from the day we’re born. How could we not internalize things and, perhaps, come to think of them as our own? As Bennett admits, there’s a line between copying and plagiarizing.

Having said all that, artists have always copied from one another. There are entire traditions – folk music and the blues come to mind – that are based on taking work done by others making it your own. Hell, it’s been said (by Picasso, possibly) that good artists copy, but great artists steal (

The issue of going too far with borrowing is where this all meshes with the law of copyright. We want to protect creators and incentivize creativity, but we don’t want to shut down the natural drift of ideas that occurs in culture. Is the list of court cases about pop plagiarism an indictment of our current copyright scheme?

That’s the idea behind what is surely the best piece of legal/regulatory speculative fiction ever written, Spider Robinson’s “Melancholy Elephants.” It’s about a word where copyright protection is eternal and, as a result, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to create new things because everything can be traced to something that came before.

We haven’t reached that point yet, although we might be close. Before we go too far, it’s worth thinking about whether we want to live in a world where every idea, every melody, every story is owned by a single person (or corporate entity) for all of time.


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