Bob Dylan Makes the Case Against Today's Copyright Climate

In a 20 minute speech, Bob Dylan explains how copyright is detrimental to cultural heritage without mentioning the word



Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was named 2015 Person of the Year by MusiCares, a self-described safety net for the music community operated by the Recording Academy, which also hosts the Grammys.

Dylan gave a 20 minute speech talking about the craft of songwriting and his own meteoric rise to fame. As IT policy consultant Steve Worona noted on Twitter, Bob Dylan, without actually mentioning copyright, illustrated how the concept can "lock up our cultural heritage," as Worona put it.

On the value added by others being able to perform your work, for example:

I also have to mention some of the early artists who recorded my songs very, very early, without having to be asked. Just something they felt about them that was right for them. I've got to say thank you to Peter, Paul and Mary, who I knew all separately before they ever became a group. I didn't even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing but it was starting to happen and it couldn't have happened to, or with, a better group.

They took a song of mine that had been recorded before that was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it and I don't think that would have happened if it wasn't for them. They definitely started something for me.

On how music is derivative, and why it shouldn't be punished for that:

These songs didn't come out of thin air. I didn't just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock 'n' roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.

I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that's fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.

For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I'd heard it just once.

Emphasis mine. Were these different folk standards composed in a legal climate such as today's, they would never be "standards." They'd be copyrighted and would lose their status as musical currency that can be passed around, performed, revised, and rewritten and so forth. Today, happening to use some of the same chords as a copyrighted song could cost you—no problem if you've got a song that's already a hit but it creates a chilling effect of the broader creative community, that may be afraid to transform prior works the way someone like Dylan would because yesterday's musicians are far more litigious today than their own predecessors were.

Read Dylan's whole speech here.

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  1. Property sucks, I agree. We should all share equally in everything.

    1. If an idea is property in the same way tangible items are, then how do you justify controlling people’s thoughts?

      You write a novel. Why can’t I take your world and write my won novel? What gives you the right to own those ideas such that I can’t ever think them or explore them and get paid to do so?

      1. My ideas are a product of my mind, and the products of those ideas are as much my property as my chair.

        1. I can’t take your chair. Does that mean you think I can’t think your ideas? WHo are you to tell me what I can and cannot think or write?

          1. I am the one who originally thought of AND applied that idea. If I make a product first, and copyright the novel idea behind it, it’s mine. Stay off of it.

            1. What you make is yours. But what give you the right to keep me from making it too? I am not taking the stuff you made. I am not taking anything from you. I am making my own things.

              1. And what happens to the incentive to innovate if the results of your intellectal blood, sweat and tears can be stolen?

                1. And what happens to the incentive to innovate if the results of your intellectal blood, sweat and tears can be stolen?

                  People go back to protecting “trade secrets” instead of sharing them in patents…

                  1. Honestly, I think there is a compromise here.

                    I see absolutely NO reason that copyrights should last past the creators death.

                    Patents for 20 years is also absurd, 10 should be the max, but I think 7 would probably be a better idea, it gives the creators a chance to get ahead in the market, but doesn’t leave a government enforced monopoly for 2 decades.

                2. + 1 Spinning Wheel

        2. And once you share your ideas with me, they are also in my mind. What gives you any legitimate right to control how I use those ideas that are in my mind?

          1. So if your money is only in bits, how is that not an idea the same as a copyrighted song or software or movie?

            The money, and the idea, are both products of your labor, no?

            I’m not saying someone should own an idea in perpetuity, but there should be some ownership at some equivalent to the amount of labor that went into said idea.

            1. @ PaulW|2.9.15 @ 1:59AM
              If you are talking Bitcoin, those bits can be stolen (i.e.: taken in a manner that they can no longer be used by the person(s) they were taken from) so it is not even analogous to an idea wrt this topic. I can’t take an idea out of your head and deprive you of it.

              With regards to movies, songs, or books, regardless of copyright, you don’t actually own the physical copies that are produced and distributed for retail. You only own the rights to decide who may manufacture and distribute the media in which they are distributed. You only get to decide who, besides yourself, gets to profit from it, but even then you really can’t control it.

              Once it is out there, it does you no harm for bootleggers and “pirates” entreprenuers to copy and distribute your works. It takes no money out of your wallet. And potential sales are not sales; that is not money in your wallet. So, you cannot argue that they deprive you of revenue from potential sales.

              Furthermore, it is arguable that it does interferes with your potential earnings from future “legitimate” sales. Generally, the market for bootlegged copies is either not open to “legitimate” sales (e.g.: North Korean censorship) or are individuals that would never pay full retail anyway. Indeed, bootleggers may very well be doing you a favor by exposing your works to markets/audiences that otherwise might never see them.

            2. And why shouldn’t they have a right to the earnings from their labor and capital (i.e.: time, effort, and materials to copy and distribute)? After all, they invested resources and labor too.

    2. Your retardation is impressive. Show us more.

    3. When did Reason get so collectivist?

      1. It is really an issue that John highlighted. You give government the power, they fuck it up, every time.

        I understand their reason, I just wish the Founders were a bit more strict on copyright when they put it in the Constitution. “Limited times” can mean whatever the fuck government wants it to mean.

  2. That’s nice to hear. However, this is the same Bob Dylan who took Apple to court for having the audacity of naming a programming language “dylan”, short for “dynamic language”.

    I think his copyright claims to his songs are much stronger than his claims to this trademark. It seems to me his support for more liberal intellectual property laws is at best inconsistent.

    1. Maybe he was butthurt that people might pronounce it Die-lan.

      1. I have heard that in MN he had only read the name and he pronounced it that way. It wasn’t until he got to NYC that someone informed him the correct pronunciation was dill-on

  3. Copyright is oppression period.

    1. I used to disagree with that. I am starting to think I was wrong and you are right Warren.

    2. It really isn’t. You just can’t steal other people’s creative property.

      1. You just can’t steal other people’s creative property.

        You’re right. You can’t, but not the way you think.

        If I steal your chair, it is gone. You can no longer sit on it, drape your clothes over it, sell it, break it down for firewood, etc..

        However, if I overhear you muttering something ingenious and I take notes and do something with that, your idea is still in your head. It has not been stolen. It cannot be stolen. You still have complete use of the idea.

    3. Incentives don’t matter.

  4. The copyright laws are destroying our cultural seed corn. If today’s copyright regime had existed in Elizabethan England, there would likely have been no Shakespeare since someone would have owned the stories he drew upon for his plays. The worst copyright tyrant of them all, Disney, only exists because their access to the public works of the Brothers’ Grim and Hans Christian Anderson. Old Walt have gotten too far if he had had to obtain the rights to his stories from the Grim Corporation and the 45 known decedents of Hans Christian Anderson.

    There is a place for copyright and patent, but it is a small one. Limit the protection to a absolute set time, like twenty or thirty years. “Owning an idea” is just not the same as owning an object. Since only one owner can posses an object, object ownership is a zero sum game. You can’t have it without taking it away and harming me. An idea is not. Your use of my idea might not harm me and may in fact benefit me.

    1. The problem, John, with “limited” copyright/patent, is that it will always be expanded. Look at copyright here. It was limited, and then the powerful media companies like Disney lobbied to have it expanded, and it was. And they’ll keep pushing to expand it, and if they get their way it’ll be forever.

      1. You are right. Like I said above, I am starting to agree with Warren. Patent and copyright has come to mean the federal government going after little old ladies and college students in the name of Disney and Sony, my instinct is to say fuck the entire thing. These assholes clearly can’t be trusted not to abuse it and we managed to build our entire civilization with out, so fuck it and get rid of the entire thing.

    2. The copyright fence works both ways, like all fences. The Disney fence locks their stuff away, but it also lock them away from becoming the cultural icon that would make them more famous and the money that goes along with it.

      I will never forgive Disney for copying Steamboat Willie, Rudyard Kipling, traditional fairy tales, and everything else, and then locking their milk toast versions away from everyone else, but I never liked Mickey Mouse anyway. An inoffensive little twerp, a shadow of the real cultural icons who beat up Mickey Mouse in every way that counts. You can’t read the original versions of any Disney pap without realizing how pale and insubstantive they are.

      1. The copyright fence works both ways, like all fences. The Disney fence locks their stuff away, but it also lock them away from becoming the cultural icon that would make them more famous and the money that goes along with it.

        Unfortunately, companies are trying destroy the public side of the copyright fence. That is, like good rent seekers, they are trying to create barriers to entry and make free use difficult or impossible and achieve a situation so that government regulations leave them as the only choice. It’s a typical pattern; the only thing that’s somewhat atypical is that they have failed so far, though not for lack of trying.

      2. I guess that this picture is appropriate.…..ey_Mao.jpg

      3. You can’t read the original versions of any Disney pap without realizing how pale and insubstantive they are.

        That’s exactly WHY Disney is so scared of losing their copyright. As soon as someone re-makes a Disney movie with all the dark shit of the original stories put back in that Disney took out (maybe due to the Hayes code, which Disney championed) Disney’s stuff will look lame in comparison and its value will suffer.

    3. Copyright is essential. It is a vital defence of non-tangible property rights. Unfortunately it has been poorly applied and over-applied to things like the Grim tales.

      1. No its not. Copyright didn’t exist until the 19th Century. We manged to create most of the great art and music in existence without it. What makes it essential? The lack of copyright didn’t stop Bach or Shakespeare.

      2. Copyright is essential.

        No, it’s not. Plenty of great works were created long before copyright. Copyrights, if anything, have hurt creativity greatly.

        It is a vital defence of non-tangible property rights.

        No, it’s not. It creates new “property rights” out of thin air.

        Particularly devious about current copyright is that everything is presumed by default to be copyrighted; no action is required to claim ownership of something.

        Note that in the absence of government-imposed copyrights, there are still plenty of contractual and technical approaches that let you use and sell your creations similar to the way copyright does today.

    4. I don’t think the problem is as bad as you make it out. The plot of a story such as those of Shakespeare’s plays is not subject to copyright, only its literary expression is.

  5. IP/copyright is tricky business. I see both sides. Not sure where the line should be drawn. More thought required.

    1. Wherever the line is, it shouldn’t be “forever”, which is essentially what is happening now.

      The other problem is what constitutes a derivative work. Back in the 1990s a band called the Verve had a huge international hit called “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. Accompanying the chorus there was a set of violins repeating a riff. Turns out those violins were sampled from some obscure 1960s record, “The BBC Orchestra Plays the Rolling Stones”. The Rolling Stones owned the rights to that record and that riff.

      They sued and took every single dime of royalties associated with that single as if they had been the author themselves. That is how far a work can deviate from an original and still violate the original’s copyright.

      Even if you believe in copyright, I don’t think it should extend that far into derivative works.

      1. Yes, it’s certainly out of control.

      2. I love that song. Didn’t know the Stones did that to them. The same Stones that stole how many American blues songs?
        The fuckers.

        1. Mick Jagger is a very smart and brutal business man. It has always been a cash strictly cash business for him. The band has stayed together for so long because Kieth likes to play and Mick likes to make money.

        2. Don’t even mention Led Zeppelin.

        3. But the Stones improved all those songs by converting them to Rock N Roll.

        4. Think the actual fucker was Allen Klein, the Stones former manager who owns the copyrights to all the pre-1970 songs that did the financial fucking.

      3. Now you sent me down a wiki black hole:

        “Rod Stewart was successfully sued by Brazilian songwriter Jorge Ben Jor, over “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” melody and chorus similarities to Ben’s 1972 song “Taj Mahal”.[22]”

        “Due to similarities to “The Air That I Breathe”, a song recorded by The Hollies in 1973, Radiohead were successfully sued for plagiarism over their 1992 song “Creep”. Consequently, songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood are credited as co-writers.[25][26]”

        1. I liked how Jason Isbell handled it when he felt Dierks Bentley had ripped off his song Razor Town. He called him a douchebag and moved on.

  6. hosts the Grammy’s

    Plural’s don’t take apostrophe’s.

  7. I’m with Frank on this, but regardless, it seems Dylan’s attitude had ‘evolved’, and I suspect it has to do with some financial security issues.

    1. Dylan never took himself too serious, which is part of his greatness and why I love him.
      By comparison, his Canadian contemporary, Neil Young, is the ultimate douchebag, and I have to try hard to separate his awesome music from his doucheyness.

      1. I have to separate almost every form of art from the artist’s douchebaggery.

  8. You can find a 100 different version of the same folk song. The songs change and evolve as it’s passed on from musician to musician. Dylan’s work is comprised of his own versions of these same classic folk songs which were passed around in the South, and originally brought over from Europe. It’s not that Dylan “stole” the music, he made it his own as others made it their own before him. That’s the problem with claiming a monopoly of an idea, it is never really 100% yours and claiming it as yours haults natural human creativity and innovation. It haults progress.

    1. Yes and you are not harmed by someone else using the idea. They didn’t “steal” the idea. If they had, you wouldn’t have it anymore. Moreover, their using it will often benefit you by getting more people interested in your interpretation of it.

      People always bitch and moan about how white rock musicians “stole” black music. Bullshit, had it not been for those white musicians popularizing that music, those black musicians might have been forgotten. Without Rock and Roll would anyone care about Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters? Doubtful.

      1. Gotta disagree here bigtime. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Charlie Patton, Skip James will still be being listened to long, long after their imitators are musical footnotes.

        1. I love all of that stuff too. But there is nothing to say that it would not have faded into obscurity. Robert Johnson’s music entirely disapeared by the 1950s. It only came back because people hear the British invasion and started looking for it again. Various other black artists might have suffered the same fate. Suppose if instead of rock the country had decided Calypso music was the thing. They would have never had any reason to discover the music you list.

          Just because you are great doesn’t mean you will forever be well known or not fall into obscurity. Hell J.S. Bach was almost forgotten in the late 18th Century. Maybe those artists would have been rediscovered but maybe not.

          The fact is their imitators ensured that they were. And thus they helped them not hurt them, which puts lie to the “they stole it” bullshit.

          1. I agree partly with what you’re saying, clearly your stuff needs to be preserved and gain distribution (and certainly kudos to Mendelsohhn for kick-starting the daddy Bach’s revival). I’m doubtful about the expressive musical potential of calypso, there’s something very primal about the blues scale and idiom and I’m not talking primitive here. Robert Johnson was an astonishingly gifted musician and songwriter, ditto for the others as well. Certainly technology plays a role as well. I’m just kind of pissed that a lot of original music was stolen from these guys (and a few woman) without attribution or any financial reward. So merit point to Clapton for recognizing musical genius (Robert Johnson), black mark for not assigning songwriting credits…until lawyers forced him to that is. I believe the Johnson heirs now do pretty well from his legacy. The Stones on the other hand were always pretty open about their musisical influences and gave due credit.

            1. Since we’re talking music and musical influences and cross fertilization etc. You have Chris Whitley’s Living With the Law” in your CD collection. First time out the gate on a major label and pure genius. There was a guy who assimilated many styles of american roots music and used their influence to turn out a set of original and amazing songs. Never, ever tire of listening to that CD.

          2. Rock & roll is cha-cha with the 1st beat of the 2nd bar suppressed.

      2. Yeah look how famous W.C. Handy is.

        1. You mean he isn’t?

    2. That’s the problem with claiming a monopoly of an idea, it is never really 100% yours

      “You didn’t build think of that”.

      If I think up a novel idea, it is absolutely 100% mine. It is my private property. And no, it clearly does not halt progress. Even with the misapplication and overuse of IP seen in today’s world, IP has been a huge boon for research and progress. It certainly hasn’t stopped. Without IP you can forget about most medical research.

      1. If I think up a novel idea, it is absolutely 100% mine. It is my private property.

        The idea that is in your head, yes. Once it is in someone else’s head… well… that is their idea, regardless of whether it originated with you or not.

  9. This is the same Dylan who refused an autograph when he caught someone filming a show of his, claiming, “I don’t like thieves,” no?

    1. I dunno. He’s also tied into the Progressive Left through his son Jesse and submits to Medals and Lifetime Achievement Grammys.
      I don’t care, I guess because I have and listen to a lot of his records. And his speech was pretty damn good.

  10. He didn’t mention Guthrie, Seeger or Ochs. In the speech. and it makes perfect sense.

  11. Dylan, like many others, says one thing but really means another. I guarantee you that if someone goes and rips off one of his songs and doesn’t carefully protect themselves he will sue the pants off of them.

    His comments are, of course, for other people and other artists. They do not apply to him.

    1. Hypocrisy is part of being human.

  12. everything belongs to everyone.

    What a perfectly communistic idea and a perfect summation of the Internet Trostkyists that seem to pop up in these threads.

    If I made an idea, it is a product of me, and the products of that idea are my property. You have no right to infringe on that property.

    1. Right. So keep it to yourself and it’s your’s. Keep it under lock and key. Don’t share it fer goddsakes lest someone thinks you’re really sharing when they are obviously stealing.

    2. If I made an idea, it is a product of me, and the products of that idea are my property.

      The world has never worked that way, and neither copyright nor patent law works that way either. So-called “intellectual property” is not “property” at all, it’s a temporary special right granted to you by the government in exchange for you choosing to communicate what you thought of.

      You have no right to infringe on that property.

      By your reasoning, you may well be infringing on my “property” if I actually had the idea first. Or you may be infringing on my “property” if I had the same idea after you, but independently.

      That’s why copyrights and patents are not about property, they are about rewarding you for choosing to share stuff. If you don’t share, you get nothing.

  13. Damn. I hope that Pink doesn’t catch me whistling “Slut Like You”.

  14. The point of copyright isn’t that someone owns an idea-the point is that if they have that idea and copyright it, they have the exclusive right to profit from that idea. The rest of the entire human race might have the same idea, but they didn’t have the motivation to act on that idea then they are shit out of luck until the copyright expires. The fact that someone is motivated enough to actually bring an idea to fruition in the marketplace is worth something in and of itself and should be rewarded with protection.

    1. And when copyrights don’t expire, or take many years to expire then the ideas that bring about advancement effectively grind to a near stop.

      1. You talk about copyright as though the future of the human race depends upon others being able to exploit the copyrighted work. Let ‘s keep in mind what copyright, as opposed to patent, is used to protect. We’re talking about artistic works primarily and not technological advancement(although software can be protected by copyright the limited protection it affords offers little comfort to the “author” of the code-most seek patents if their savvy). The fact that I might not be permitted to sell my drawings of Mickey Mouse or sell copies of my rendition of “All along the Watchtower” without permission and for profit isn’t something holding back “advancement” in any real sense of the word.

        1. I should have said, “(. . . if they’re savvy).”

        2. So you created mice? Or did you create the name Mickey? Both?

          By the way, I’ve been an inventor all my life. Perhaps, not so much now that I’m old and end of my line. Early on I took a quote by Nikola Tesla to heart: “Money does not represent such a value as men have placed upon it. All my money has been invested into experiments with which I have made new discoveries enabling mankind to have a little easier life.”

          It’s obvious you an I just invest differently in ego. I realize there’s virtually nothing I can do intellectually that’s really all mine. I can only build on what’s already come from the minds of many before me. You on the other hand, invest much more heavily into you. You really believe that you yourself, or those like you, should become rich by doing what you would consider “stealing” by others and just adding to, or changing it slightly.

          We’re just going to have to disagree. We’re two different kinds of people.

  15. Whh, Eh jus ha sa ths ahh smah!

  16. Even a single note can not be played that wasn’t someone else’s idea first.

    1. Copyright doesn’t work that way.

      1. I’m not talking about copyright. I’m talking about the concept of ownership of “intellectual property” and just how far further it could go. hate to tell you this, but no one comes up with ideas that are not built entirely on the foundation of the ideas of others. It’s the nature of man.

  17. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ??????

  18. Six months ago I lost my job and after that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a great website which literally saved me. I started working for them online and in a short time after I’ve started averaging 15k a month… The best thing was that cause I am not that computer savvy all I needed was some basic typing skills and internet access to start…
    This is where to start???.


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  20. Yeah, I found it interesting that fellow Travelling Wilbury Tom Petty sued Sam Smith for Smith’s “Stay With Me” similarity to Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” They settled out of court, with Petty getting royalties. Afterward, Petty said he had no hard feelings toward Sam Smith, actually liked him.

    Of course, that didn’t stop him from suing, at his lawyers advice.

  21. Reason kissing Bob Dylans’s butt again, no way

  22. I often hear the same argument.

    “With real property, there is scarcity; I can take your chair, you no longer have it, but if I take your idea, you still have it, and so do I.”

    Of course, there *is* scarcity; the human mind and efforts which create these expressed works in the first place. It is plainly immoral to assert that someone else has the right to them, simply for them existing, without compensation. It is, quite literally, communism. In other words, the Anti-IP crowd wants everyone to be entitled to that which they had no hand in creating.

    Suppose for a moment that you spent 5 years writing a novel only to have it copied before it was published, and then distributed out for free. All of a sudden, the scarcity or creative resources is plainly obvious.

    In the end, it comes down to a very simple moral principle; the creator has upheld their end of the bargain; they created something new for some kind of use or enjoyment, and they assumed all the risk. All they ask (usually) is for some compensation. It is only good, moral, and right to, as a consumer, to meet those terms, or to walk away. But what is immoral is to claim “I value this product enough to take a copy, and to protest if I am denied it, yet I don’t value the creator enough to agree to their terms.”

    If the creator wants to give their stuff away for free, fine, many people and companies do, but that is their right. It isn’t the right of the non-creator to make that decision.

  23. The “reasoning” above is about as specious as some Sunday preacher stringing together random quotes from the Bible to prove the world will end on Monday.

    Bob Dylan jealousy guards his copyrights, down to sending Web Sheriff after you if you infringe his. He prints an annual 50th Anniversary vinyl collection in Europe to protect his rights where the law is different than the US.

    About 10 years ago it was reported Dylan makes $10 million on the 1st day of every year from copyright royalties.

    If you feel the need to test his resolve, register an account with YouTube, post at least 4 songs from his Sony albums with some visuals – it doesn’t matter. Title the postings according to artist and title. Within a very short time, YouTube will delete the account under the 3-strikes rule. An alternate experiment is to not identify the songs – they can catch that as well with automated bots.

    Bob Dylan believes in his copyright and will test Fair Use given half a chance.

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