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2002 Summer
Fahrenheit 451 Revisited
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Who owns the music?
Tough Times, Tough Choices
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Summer 2002
Who owns the music?
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Several months after the recording's release, the Suya chief visited Seeger at his home in Rio de Janeiro. Turning on the television, "we heard, to our immense surprise, a Suya song played behind an advertisement" — a usage for which the Suya were neither asked permission nor paid. "I looked at the chief with considerable concern," Seeger recalls. "He grinned and said, 'It's beautiful, everyone is hearing our music.' "

The chief may have been pleased, but Seeger was profoundly disturbed by the incident and its broader implications.

"I wondered at the freedom Brazilian television felt to use this group's recordings as background music," he says, "a policy that would be rigorously policed if the music were performed by a commercial artist in the United States but which can't be policed when it is only performed by the best living Suya musicians."

So one is left to ask: Who owns the music?

It is a question that looms large in this era of the Internet, when file-exchange technologies like Napster and Morpheus have made it possible to pull music — copyrighted or not — straight off a computer. And it is a question that looms large for ethnomusicologists like Seeger, those scholars who are devoted to understanding the meaning and structure of music as cultural and intercultural phenomena, who often find themselves in the role of guardian of that musical heritage.

"We are in the midst of an intellectual-property gold rush," says Seeger. "Thousands of fortune seekers are trying to stake their claims to promising territory, existing claims holders are seeking increasingly aggressive means of defending their claims and the original owners are often being ignored."

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