by Sheldon Pearce
Associate Staff Writer
Kanye West is being sued over the Yeezus single "New Slaves." Hungarian composer Gabor Presser is claiming that he is owed money for a sample that was used at the end of the track, TMZ reports. Presser says that Kanye reached out for permission to use the sample and that he agreed, but only on the condition that a formal deal would be arranged. According to documents obtained by TMZ, Kanye sent Presser a $10,000 advance, but the check was never cashed. Now, Presser is asking for at least $2.5 million.
Not being exactly a big fan or not-fan of West it's not a topic for blogging here to wish ill or bad for the guy. But since a Hungarian composer's come up it's interesting to me--I think it's possible to demonstrate how American popular music can be demonstrated to carry on and modify musical idioms that have developed in European contexts half a century or more before. This doesn't make the American stuff not American, far from it, reviving, revitalizing and tinkering with riffs is what's made the American music American. You can take some fun riffs from Spanish guitar music from the 19th century, play with them a bit, and get yourself to ragtime a la the 1890-1920 period. It can also be done with Bohemian music for the guitar.
Even J. S. Bach took what he liked from French, German, Italian, English and Polish music and synthesized that into what we hear in his work. The thing is that back in Bach's era patronage worked more by paying you for services rendered and not mechanical licensing.
For instance, one of the more memorable case studies that comes to mind is Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, whose music was famously used in Stanley Kubrick's 2011.
Ligeti told us that when his music was first being performed in European new-music festivals, he had to hitchhike to the concerts. "I didn't have the money to buy a girl a cup of coffee." Then one day somebody told him, "Did you know there's a movie with your music in it?" Ligeti didn't know. Kubrick had simply ripped off his things for 2001. Ligeti duly sued Kubrick and in the end, he told us, received the grand sum of $3,000. "But do you like the movie?" somebody asked. "Yah, I really like it," Ligeti said. And of course, 2001 did for him what Sgt. Pepper's did for Stockhausen—helped make him famous beyond the esoteric circles of the European new-music scene. By the '90s, the two were the dominant figures of their generation, but by then Stockhausen was mostly out of sight, sunk in his mystical cycle of operas called Licht, or "light."
As the story reportedly went, Kubrick had fill-in music for the soundtrack, disliked the music the commissioned composer came up with, and settled on using the fill-in music as the actual soundtrack, but that's hearsay from memory so I can't be sure that's how it really worked out. However it played out ... Ligeti thought it was cool and all, that his music ended up in 2001, except for the part where Kubrick didn't pay him, at least not at first.
This is stuff that can be kept in mind looking back on the 2013 controversy that swirled around Mark Driscoll on the subject of plagiarism and copyright infringement. Some of Driscoll's defenders (if those are still out there) might propose that nobody decided to litigate but copyright litigation is hugely expensive and a case can take as long as a decade to get resolved. Had the Christian publishing industry actually in any fashion gotten itself embroiled in litigation over intellectual property who knows if there'd even be a Christian publishing industry as we know it by the end of it. The Result Source controversy sort of came and went and the mere idea that mainstream Christian publishing could have somehow not addressed the level of plagiarism and sales list rigging that's been going on in the industry is a bit sad to consider.
To the extent that people like Kanye West or Led Zeppelin can end up in headlines on the issue of alleged copyright infringement can be a reminder that there are some Christians who actually think copyright itself is the problem rather than the changes made to copyright and licensing law by gigantic corporations like Disney.
What some Christians have been trying to assert in the midst (and wake) of Driscoll's plagiarism controversy is that intellectual property (aka copyright) is bad because it asserts ownership of ideas. Well ... that's a pretty big assertion and one that doesn't account for the kind of copyright/trademark that is all over a tentpole film like Batman vs Superman and every superhero, that thing known as "work for hire". Frank Miller doesn't own the copyright for The Dark Knight Returns but his name is on it. If we stop insisting on the inaccurate assertion that copyright asserts ownership of an idea and can be regarded as a testimony about labor with attendant concerns about how that labor may be appropriated, then we can come across cases where an artistic work may have a copyright but that is regarded as public domain. Like ... Woody Guthrie.
But also important was our other discovery: "This Land Is Your Land" has been in the public domain since 1973.
Fact #1: Guthrie wrote the song in 1940. At that time, the term of copyright was 28 years, renewable once for an additional 28 years. Under the relevant law, the copyright term for a song begins when the song is published as sheet music (just performing it is not enough to trigger the clock).
Fact #2: A search of Copyright Office records shows that the copyright wasn't registered until 1956, and Ludlow filed for a renewal in 1984.
Fact #3: Thanks to tips provided by musicologists who heard about this story, we discovered that Guthrie published and sold the sheet music for "This Land Is Your Land" in a pamphlet in 1945. An original copy of this mimeograph was located for us by generous volunteers who visited the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. For those who are not able to visit the Woody Guthrie Manuscript Collection at the American Folklife Archives, we've posted a copy of the document.
This means that the copyright in the song expired in 1973, 28 years after Guthrie published the sheet music. Ludlow's attempted renewal in 1984 was 11 years tardy, which means the classic Guthrie song is in the public domain. (I'll note that Ludlow apparently disputes this, although I've not heard any credible explanation from them.)
Ever since the "Blurred Lines" verdict I've been reading different reactions to that ruling. There are plenty of people who consider the ruling a disaster for musicians and songwriters ... but is it? I mean, I write for the classical guitar and I love to rework the riffs and themes of composers who have been dead for centuries. When everything is a remix but there's virtually no such thing as a popular cultural idiom in the last century that can be construed as truly public domain what do you do? One option is to go back to the stuff that's indisputably public domain and work forward from that.