Copy right?

July 12, 2009 at 7:25 pm (Uncategorized)

Earlier this year I wrote a short biography of blues giant Robert Johnson for work (not a bad job!). During the course of the biography, I happened across a Vanity Fair article entitled Searching for Robert Johnson, which deals with the question, who owns Robert Johnson?

As the story goes, Robert Johnson was a blues musician who sold his sold to the Devil to play guitar.  Now everyone knows you can’t trust Old Nick, so it’s no surprise that Johnson’s career was meteoric, but brief.  Johnson died in 1938 aged 27. He made only 41 recordings, nicely collected on a Columbia Records 2-CD box set with a 48 page booklet.

Now, besides his life and legend, the other interesting thing about Johnson is that there are only two known pictures of him. The Vanity Fairpiece is the story of a third possible picture, and the legal battles around it. Johnson’s estate is owned by Stephen C. LaVere, the author of the essay in the box set. LaVere gained ownership through Johnson’s half sister, and he is aggressive in maintaining his claim: After Robert Crumb drew a famous picture of Johnson, LaVere sued him to receive a portion of any profits Crumb made on the picture. Faced  with a long and expensive court battle, Crumb settled.(Interestingly though, despite his reputation as a Johnson scholar, his work is  controversial. For a critique of his essay on Johnson in the box set, see Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train)

What’s interesting here, for me, is how under capitalism, everything becomes a commodity (i.e., a good which is for sale). Even an image.

Folk music, the blues, country music really has no author. Before music was able to be recorded, if you wanted to hear a song, you had to go and see a performer (or learn how to play yourself). What this meant was that the song was never performed in exactly the same way twice. With the advent of recording technology, it meant that music become more widely accessible because now permanent records could be made.  It also meant that the song could be commodified.

Previously, I could go to see a performer play. If I liked a song, I might use it in my act. But, let’s suppose I changed a little bit of it to suit my style. Who owned the song? Well, no one. I didn’t create it, and probably neither did the person I heard it from. That’s folk music. But when it becomes possible to make those permanent records, who wrote that song becomes very important. A.P. Carter, a great musician, but an even better businessman, did just that. Copyrighted songs that were being played before he was born.

Do artists have a right to be compensated for their work? Well, in a perfect world, people would play music because that’s what they loved to do. In this one, under the sway of the law of value, it’s just commodities they produce.

And to bring this right up to the present, the reason Michael Jackson was able to survive those nasty rumours and court cases for so long was not just his own work, but the fact he owned the Beatles song catalogue. He was able to make a comfortable living from songs he owned, but had no hand in creating. The irony is that Jackson’s body of work is about to follow the same path. The court battles over Jackson’s children are only preludes for the battles over Jackson’s art.  

As 10CC said, ‘Art for art’s sake; money for God’s sake. ‘


1 Comment

  1. Paul Faulkner said,


    As a blues musician, I’m always wondering who I should be paying royalties to for the right to endlessley(sp?) play the 12 bar blues format: W.C. Handy? But we all know that you can’t copyright a song form; only lyrics and the melody, which is why Bob Dylan gets away with ripping off so many old blues and folk songs. He retains the form, ditches the lyrics for his own and, sometimes not so cleverly, disguises the accompanying melody. Many of those tunes are so old now that they’ve entered the realm of “public domain”, but I do find it interesting that on his most recent album “together through life” he felt compelled to credit the estate of Willie Dixon for the obvious facsimile of his “I just Want To Make Love To You” as “My Wife’s Hometown”. Perhaps, as well as being an undoubtedly great artist, the man does have a conscience after all.


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