What Composers & Copyright Lawyers Can Teach Each Other
What makes a piece of music "original" for copyright purposes? Does every last part need to be original, or just a particular hook or melody? If only some parts are original, then are those the only parts protectable under copyright law? Even more vexing, given that most composers work from a batch of motifs, riffs, hooks, and chord changes that are standard in their genre, how can we define when a particular riff is original rather than just "generic" or standard?
Professor Sean O'Connor spent 12 years as a professional rock songwriter, lead guitarist, and front man in Boston and New York before going to grad school for philosophy and law. He self-produced and released two albums of original material which received airplay on college and commercial stations. Later he became an intellectual property (IP) attorney and has represented artists and arts organizations. Currently, he teaches IP and other legal issues involved in the commercialization of art, science, and technology at UW Law School. He has developed a highly effective live music demonstration that teaches IP students how to think about the line between "standard" or "generic" and "original" musical phrases.
For this one-of-a-kind Brown Bag, Professor O'Connor will give an enhanced version of this demonstration for an advanced audience of artists/composers and copyright attorneys. Using both live guitar elements and analyses of prerecorded tracks, he will show how songwriters have transformed standard riffs into memorable original ones, as well as how to determine which elements of a song are original and which might be considered "scenes a faire" stock components that are not protectable in and of themselves. He will also discuss the issues involved in deciding what form of the composition should be used for copyright registration purposes, including the pros and cons of written musical notation versus sound recording deposits. Based on his own extensive rock band experience he will lead the audience through the nature and implications of musical contributions by band members other than the purported songwriter - a la the recent case involving 60s rock band Procul Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale." Finally, he will also engage the audience in a dialogue about the role of "faulty covers/copying" in generating new styles and compositions of music: e.g., is Devo's classic "cover" of the Rolling Stone's "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" really a cover, simply a new song disguised as a cover, or a clever "deconstruction" of the original?
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