It often seems as though each time an artist, let alone a legend, pays homage to the past, some pundit with an axe to grind on copyright seizes the moment to declare the contemporary law restrictive to creative development. Variations on the theme of “artists could never do that today” have been trotted out in essays, some thoughtful, others not so much. In this latter category, Ed Krayewski, writing for reason.com, picked up a few themes from Bob Dylan’s 20-minute Grammy Award acceptance speech when he was named Person of the Year by the Recording Academy’s philanthropic program MusicCares.
Dylan pays homage to his well-known roots in folk music and offers tribute to artists who performed his work in the early days. Dylan says, “I also have to mention some of the early artists who recorded my songs very, very early, without having to be asked.” Krayewski offers this quote referring to Peter, Paul, & Mary as evidence that having other artists play a songwriter’s music has value, as though this some sort of revelation. Not only does this come under the professional column labeled “No Shit,” but Dylan isn’t even saying what Krayewski seems to think he’s saying. “Early artists…recorded….without having to be asked” means Dylan didn’t ask them to play his songs, but he was delighted they did. And nothing in copyright law today prevents this from happening artist-to-artist in the same nascent environment Dylan is describing about his early career and that of Peter, Paul and Mary. In fact, once a song is published, the songwriter cannot prevent a cover from being recorded, even if he wants to, as long as the performing artist pays a fee. But this licensing process hardly “locks up cultural heritage,” as IT policy consultant Steve Worona tweeted and was quoted in the article by Krayewski.
Dylan has spoken and written so much about his process, his inspirations and derivations, that his words have frequently been served up as proof that copyright kills creativity. The problem is the argument is so often based on an assumption that the exception proves the rule. For instance, there is this quote pulled by Krayewski from Dylan’s speech:
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
Ah, ha! There we have it! Proof from the master’s mouth himself that work is derivative and, therefore, we can conclude that copyright stands in the way of the creative process! Except, no. Again, for an author of, well,…anything this quote also kinda sits in the “No shit” column. Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger might say essentially the same thing; certainly they’ve said similar things, but can you tell these artists apart? Can you tell the differences among Dylan and Guthrie and Seeger and Guthrie the Younger? In those differences is the work that becomes copyrightable, yet none stifles one another or anyone who has come since to break out of those famous shadows. Krayewski suggests Dylan’s generation is more litigious than its predecessors, which implies that the present generation of musicians has been left gnawing on musical table scraps because all the damn boomers locked away the prime cuts under copyright. How then, did that generation produce so much music without spending their lives in court? And where the hell did some wonderfully innovative works I just heard by The Punch Brothers come from? For that matter, where did all of Dylan’s post 1976 works come from (except the Christmas album), if the “copyright environment” is so toxic? Because there are infinite variations, and artists know this.
The only thing that’s really changed about the copyright environment is that there are tech-industry interests aligned against it. As such, perhaps the supposedly free-market libertarians at reason.com should look at the economic pressures on contemporary artists as a threat to culture rather than copyrights. But most especially, they should stop presuming to know anything about the creative process and the ways in which artists draw from one another and still manage to create their own works. There’s a reason the ability to do this is called a gift. It’s special, it’s rare, and not everybody gets it.