copyright and the ex-avant-garde

Kyle Gann had a rather disturbing revelation about how copyright intersects with scholarship, and in particular scholarship about experimental music:

… you are no longer allowed to quote texts that are entire pieces of art. This means I’ve been trying to get permission simply to refer to Fluxus pieces like La Monte Young’s “This piece is little whirlpools in the middle of the ocean,” and Yoko Ono’s “Listen to the sound of the earth turning.” And of course, Yoko (whom I used to know) isn’t responding, and La Monte is imposing so many requirements and restrictions that I would have to add a new chapter to the book, and so in frustration well past the eleventh hour, I’ve excised the pieces from the text.

Normally, I’d expect the publishing companies to be the most obstructionist, as this commenter said:

Just last week I found out that, even for a thesis that will not be published, Shirmer [sic] now asks money to permit me to reproduce musical excerpts. If I paid every institution (libraries for manuscripts / publishers for printed matter) that holds rights to the excerpts that I need to reproduce to illustrate points and arguments, my dissertation would cost in excess of 15.000US dollars for permissions alone.

Some months ago I was warned that I may not have had the right to TAKE NOTES while studying Cowell manuscripts at the LOC in 1998.

Apparently, however, the artists themselves are also the problem. Way to make yourselves even more irrelevant…


7 thoughts on “copyright and the ex-avant-garde

  1. That’s just weird. All of the activity described seems to fall squarely within the ambit of fair use. The only statutory fair use factor that seems to weigh against fair use is the “substantiality of the portion used” and if the work is itself only one sentence long, then it’s almost unavoidable that any excerpt used other than “if” and “but” is going to be substantial in relation to the whole.

    It’s cases like this (and the Joyce estate) that give unfortunate fuel to the “death to copyright” crowd. People like these scholars and Nina Paley are the poster children for copyright overreach, not the operators of music file sharing sites.

    • I though it was weird as well — essentially I can write down any (slightly strange) sentence, call it a piece of art, copyright it, and then go nuts.

      The issue with music publishers is also strange — in what way is an excerpt different from a quotation? I used some musical epigraphs in my thesis and it never crossed my mind that it was anything but fair use.

      • Technically it’s under copyright from the moment you write it down. A single sentence is at the very edge of what would be entitled to copyright expression, but it probably would be entitled to some protection, just as a chord progression might be.

        This seems to be excessive caution on the publisher’s part.

  2. Nina Paley has not been accused of anything. But she has had problems and incurred considerable expense in clearing the rights to the music she used in her film “Sita Sings the Blues,” which in turn impacts her ability to distribute the same through conventional movie promotion and distribution channels. She has, as a result, become an anti-copyright activist viewing copyright as a barrier to her artistry. And she does have a point – the songs she used are pretty old, so the fact that they’re still under copyright seems hard to justify.

  3. Of course! Those classic experimental music pieces are extremely valuable! It’s very important to monetize them appropriately to ensure that people have an incentive to continue to create experimental music! Because that’s the only reason anyone would possibly make experimental music: the big money!

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