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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