Copyrighting unique musical concepts

I’m not sure about the specific rules in regards to claiming authorship of a song, but I think you have to make the case that you combined a unique melody with a chord progression (lyrics are an added dimension.) What constitutes a unique melody probably has a certain amount of scholarly mumbo-jumbo written about it. After all, if you take any three notes from any melody, you’re bound to find that there are numerous already composed songs containing the same melodic nugget.

About 10 years ago, I started to occasionally notice how a particular song I was listening to was borrowing heavily from some other song. I remember in particular a song by the group Everclear called “Father of Mine” which, to my mind, was blatantly ripping off an old 60s song whose name I can’t remember. Currently, I hear snippets of other songs in the songs I listen to all the time. This is probably because my musical mind has “sharpened” and the library of tunes I carry around in my head has expanded.

This makes me wonder as to whether the way we copyright tunes isn’t fundamentally flawed. Are we currently merely rewarding plagiarists? Consider this scenario: a guy creates a great melodic idea — some new way of contouring notes around each other — and writes a couple songs. Then some other guy comes around, takes the general idea and writes a hit and gets millions of dollars and sleeps with supermodels. But he didn’t really create anything… he just kind of tweaked an already existing formula.

In the 60s, John Coltrane came up with the song “Giant Steps*.” It was a totally unique and instantly identifiable musical idea… it was a new “sound.” (For music nerds: it’s the concept of modulating through keys by moving major seventh chords around in major third intervals. These intervals are so wide they could be thought of as, you got it, “giant steps.”) And many people took his idea and wrote their own songs with it, myself included (it’s the tune “On Hold” on my new album.) I’m not saying that we aren’t creating something, but it’s built off Coltrane’s idea. It seems the music copyright system should really allow for the patenting of musical “concepts” not just melodies and chord progressions and lyrics. Frankly, this would be almost impossible to do so as the legal definition of a musical concept would be bound to be weighed down in vagaries. But as it is, it seems we have a system where a person could really make a musical breakthrough and get very little compensation for it, whereas some hippie douchebag can string together a bunch of cliches and become a millionaire.

* I should mention that I met Tommy Flanagan, the piano player who played on the tune. This means I’m cooler than you.

1 Response to “Copyrighting unique musical concepts”

  1. John Saleeby

    I met that female background singer on “One Of These Nights” by The Eagles. I guess on my deathbed I’ll reveal that she’s buried in the woods behind the Liquor Store on Highway 81.