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Summer 2002
Who owns the music?
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But times have changed, Seeger says. "We're in the middle of a huge sea change in the way people think about indigenous knowledge," says Seeger. He notes that, on the international level, the 1994 General Agreement on Trade in Services requires individual countries to establish their own copyright laws. Some countries that previously had few laws in this area are now striving to protect their traditions. Brazil, for example, is currently pushing for a law to protect valuable indigenous knowledge — knowledge that would encompass both indigenous music and the native understanding of pharmaceuticals derived from plants and trees. Major drug companies, however, are lobbying against the law.

The issues won't be resolved quickly or easily.

"The legal issues will have to be solved by lawyers," says Seeger. "The ethical issues [raised by researchers and scholars] will have to be dealt with by changing attitudes and behaviors."

At the very least, some combination of obtaining a musician's permission and making attribution may constitute a respectable solution.

Ethnomusicologists going into the field today routinely seek written or taped verbal permission before recording music. And many are backtracking to obtain permission for recordings already made — an often daunting task. For research comparing African and African-American fiddle music, DjeDje is in the process of seeking permission from nearly 60 musicians whom she interviewed and whose music she began recording nearly three decades ago, long before she realized she should obtain permission. Last summer, she wrote scores of letters to African-American musicians and their families in southwest Louisiana, where zydeco is a popular musical form, and in the Appalachian states, where they play "old-time" string-band music, "but a lot of them don't even remember who I am. One woman wrote back to me, 'My husband has been dead for the past five years and now you're writing me asking permission? No, you cannot have any permission.' Yet, I know that were this man, an important black fiddler, still alive, he would want to be included." DjeDje is determined to keep up the pursuit, she says, because "I don't want to be someone who is known for exploiting individuals."

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