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Who owns the music?
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Summer 2002
Who owns the music?
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What's more, concepts of ownership vary from culture to culture. Among the Suya, for example, a song belongs not to its composer, but to the person who sings it aloud for the first time. Among Native Americans, says Rice, "there are issues of ownership based on notions of the power inherent in the songs."

If there is to be greater copyright protection for indigenous music, Seeger says, the law must truly protect musicians, not just music companies. Current U.S. copyright law protects only recent music compositions, and then only for the life of the composer plus 70 years; traditional music, including American folk and roots music, is unprotected and considered to be in the public domain. Yet copyright law has also been used in this manner for charitable purposes, says Seeger. For example, several members of the civil-rights movement, realizing that the song "We Shall Overcome" — an old religious hymn — would probably be claimed by an arranger, decided to copyright the song and have proceeds from its usage sent to the Highlander Folk School, which had been the center of civil-rights organizing.

"The real issue," says Seeger, "is not the music industry but the economic and cultural exploitation of one group by another group or individual. When music is owned by indigenous people, it is seen as public domain. If it becomes popular in its mainstream form, though, it suddenly becomes individual property. The song brings a steady income to the person who individualized it, not to the people from whose culture it derived. Many Jamaicans feel that Harry Belafonte, for example, robbed them by copyrighting and earning revenue from arrangements of traditional songs."

Along similar lines, many African-American musicians in a wide range of genres, from blues and jazz to gospel, were paid miniscule sums by record companies for music that earned the companies millions, says DjeDje. "The companies would say, 'We'll pay you $50 for the rights to this.' The performers didn't realize that their song could be copied over a hundred times and they could make money each time. To them, and at that time, $50 was a lot of money. They didn't understand the technology. They didn't know the possibilities."

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