Stealing/Borrowing/Remixing Music

I spent part of the other morning re-reading a comic book from Duke University that resonates with my own interests around music, composition and remix.

Entitled Theft: A History of Music, the book explores copyright law and music composition through the ages. If that sounds boring, it isn’t. The book weaves in lots of humor and visual creativity as it shows the path of “borrowing” other people’s music for remix over time.

What’s great is the book is free for download, or for reading online. You can also purchase a copy, but the intent of the university’s Center for the Study of Public Domain is to educate the public, so the book is free for educational purposes.

What becomes clear pretty quickly is how much we always have borrowed from each other, and how legal codes over time have moved to protect the original artists even as those codes tried to balance the possibilities of moving art in new directions. This is the conundrum of the current musical scene, where hip hop artists build new songs out of samples of old songs. Or used to. Now, it costs a lot of money to do that, with lawyers jumping all over the samples.

This is not necessarily a bad thing — it is forcing rappers and others to hire musicians who can play instruments (listen to Kendrick Lamar) or learning themselves how to play (listen to D’Angelo) so that they are making all of the music. But that has changed the nature of hip-hop, too. It’s all very intriguing, I think.

I appreciated this history lessons here and I need to come back to Theft for a second, deeper read. I think I need to get it into my Kindle for a better reading experience, though.

The book may not be good for my classroom — the vocabulary and concepts are beyond the sixth grade — but I can see pulling out some pages for times when we talk about digital writing and remix in the classroom, and how the current music scene is just a glimpse of the debate that has been raging since Plato’s time (he argued against remix).

Peace (in frames),


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