No More Songs
copyright | law | mathematical space | music | open source
POSTED: November 23, 2021
Phil Ochs once wrote a song called No More Songs. You can find it on his sarcastically titled album Greatest Hits, a collection of mainly country-rock songs produced by Van Dyke Parks. Ironically you will find it as the last track: ironically because Greatest Hits ended up as his final album.
Oh the gods, they do like their fun.
All of this has nothing directly to do with the point of this note, other than following a particular train of thought to a logical conclusions. In recent years the number of songwriters getting sued by the publishers of previously published songs has increased dramatically. Led Zepplin has just finished their day in court because the publishers of a little known song by Spirit claimed that it formed the basis of the melody of Stairway to Heaven.
The lodestone case in this context remains George Harrison’s loss in a lawsuit that claimed he had stolen the melody for My Sweet Lord from the sixties hit He’s So Fine by The Chiffons. My response to this remains hmmmm.
In this TED Talk Damien Riehl proposes a novel solution to all this:
He and his colleague have written a program that has made midi files of every melody that can possible exist in a mathematical space defined by a twelve note (one octave) range and a twelve note length. They have released all their work into the public domain and made both the program and the actual melodies available at AllTheMusic.info.
Unusually Riehl works both as a musician and songwriter and as a copyright lawyer, and has years of programming experience. He intends his work to facilitate future songwriting by making it impossible to make legal claims about plagiarism based on alleged historical copyrights. To this end he claims that melodies live as numbers in a finite mathematical space, that numerical sequences have weak or no status under copyright law, and that in any case he and his colleague have now copyrighted every melody that can theoretically exist in melody space.
As with anything to do with the law the theory behind this idea, and even the practical demonstration of it will mean nothing until someone tests them in court. I wait for this moment with some interest.
I have come across an interview with Damien Riehl and his collaborator Noah Rubin (because everything exists on the internet) in which they discuss their project with Adam Neely.
You can see it here:
Apparently the number of melodies under discussion amounts to approximately 68.7 billion. Somewhere among them you might find a timeless yet hitherto undiscovered melody but to do that you would have to wade through a Borges library worth of dross.
I wonder if a way exists to narrow down that search…