In the March 4 issue of the Indiana Daily Student, a piece was published by Stefan Towes outlining the stunted development of Black music at the hands of copyright law, but the article makes misleading claims about copyright law’s impact.
Before the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976, there was little regulation that outlined the basic rights and privileges of copyright holders, and it ensures that artists are compensated for their creative contributions to the music business. Given how disenfranchised Black artists had been prior to the passage of the law, the act afforded basic rights to Black musicians regarding their intellectual property. Look no further than the “Blurred Lines” case, where white artist Robin Thicke was found guilty of plagiarism, paying $5 million to the estate of Marvin Gaye. Recognition of Black creativity on this scale would not have been possible without the rights afforded by the Copyright Act.
The article cheekily referred to creativity in Black music as “theft.” Calling the work of Black artists “theft” diminishes the skill and vision of these artists and serves as a placeholder for a lack of nuance in discussing jazz. The author claims that the actions of “musical theft” such as borrowing chord progressions and improvisation were killed by the Copyright Act of 1976, but the law makes a clear exception for the idea-expression distinction. Copyright law could not make improvisation or contrafacts proprietary, as they are systems and methods that allow artists to express themselves creatively.
From a broad perspective, copyright law hasn’t stunted hip-hop’s development at all. The lawsuits that followed the rise of hip-hop in response to sampling ensured that the original artists were compensated for their contributions to hip-hop songs without diminishing the creativity of hip-hop artists. Despite these initial impediments, hip-hop developed an increasingly large audience base and overtook rock as the most popular genre in America.
The legal framework surrounding copyright is designed to give artists the rights, privileges, and compensation they deserve for their intellectual property. There are many factors around the stunted development of Black music, but copyright law is not one of them.
Duncan Holzhall is a senior studying voice performance and arts management at the Jacobs School of Music.