Sunday, August 22, 2010

Songs and copyright 7: alternatives

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen how copyright works and considered both the legal and moral angles.

copyleft symbol

Some people have a problem with the current law, feeling that it is too restrictive. However, they still want to have some control over their intellectual property. This week I look at several alternatives to the existing copyright laws.

public domain

The simplest way to make a song available to everyone is to put it in the public domain. Sometimes people use the term ‘public domain’ in a loose fashion to mean ‘free’. However, ‘public domain’ is a legal term and means, precisely, ‘not copyrighted’. A work is in the public domain either because its copyright has expired, or the owner of the work forfeits their rights over it.

Under the Berne Convention, which most countries have signed, any literary or artistic work is automatically copyrighted. Therefore, if you want a work to be in the public domain, you must take some steps to disclaim the copyright on it. This isn't very hard to do — the copyright holder merely has to make a statement that they release all rights to the work. Once this irrevocable act is complete they no longer have any power over how the work is used since it is then owned by the public as a whole.

It is controversial, however, whether it is possible for a copyright holder to truly abandon the copyright of their work. Some scholars of copyright law, agree that it is difficult to put works in the public domain, but not impossible. The Creative Commons website, for example, has a public domain dedication form which produces an electronic receipt which is meant to act as legal backing for the dedication. It might be that another licensing option, such as the Creative Commons Attribution-Only license (see below), is a safer choice.

creative commons

Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to making it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others, consistent with the rules of copyright.

They provide free licenses and other legal tools to mark creative work with the freedom the creator wants it to carry, so others can share, remix, use commercially, or any combination thereof.

There are a range of licenses available where you keep your copyright but allow people to copy and distribute your work provided they give you credit — and only on the conditions you specify. Ranging from attribution only (i.e. as long as people say where the work came from, they can then do anything they like with it), to attribution, non-commercial, non-derivatives (i.e. people must say where the work came from, can’t use it commercially, and can’t alter it or build on it in any way).

If you visit the home page of this blog: you will see that it is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 which means that I am allowing anyone to copy and make derivative works of any of my posts as long as they acknowledge that I wrote the original.


In general, copyright law is used by an author to prohibit others from reproducing, adapting, or distributing copies of the author's work. In contrast, an author may give every person who receives a copy of a work permission to reproduce, adapt or distribute it but require that any resulting copies or adaptations are also bound by the same licensing agreement. This is called copyleft. Copyleft type licenses are a novel use of existing copyright law to ensure a work remains freely available.

Copyleft is usually associated with computer programs, but it can also be applied to music. When a work is ‘copylefted’, it means all derived works (even if they mix in other works as well) must be distributed under the same terms (usually the same exact license) as the original work. Licenses can be obtained through Creative Commons. Copyleft is sometimes known as Share Alike.

informal arrangements

Whilst retaining copyright, you can make clear that you are giving users certain freedoms over your intellectual property. For example, putting “This page may be photocopied” on sheet music (e.g. the OUP’s Voiceworks series)

change the law!

Some people believe that the current copyright system is failing, but rather than adapting it, they are calling for wholesale change. There is a recent article from the BBC World Service – Copyright: time to change the laws? – which considers why the current system is now out of date.

further reading

Tom Ewing wrote an article in The Guardian pointing out that modern music marketing (i.e. giving away music for free) is close in spirit to the Native American practice of potlach.

A story in The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses lessons from the history of book publishing, the evolution of copyright and what might happen in the future. “History shows that intellectual property is more complex than either its creators or copiers care to admit.”

Counterpoint online has started a debate on the future of copyright. It’s 300 years since the passing into law of the very first copyright act the British Council Creative Economy Team has launched a debate and year-long series of forums framed by the question: if copyright hadn’t been invented, what kind of copyright would we want?

The Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University has created a course called ‘Copyright for librarians’. Module 6 of the course looks at Creative Approaches and Alternatives.

the end

Well, that wraps up this series of seven posts on songs and copyright. A complex subject, but I’ve tried to give as clear an explanation as I can. I’d love to hear your views on the series. Do drop by and leave a comment.

If you’ve missed the rest of this series, here are links to the other posts:


UPDATE (14 July 2015)

Since I wrote this post I’ve written two others that might be of interest:

Choirs and copyright: a beginner’s guide for the bewildered

Copying music: how to stay on the right side of the law


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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