Monday, March 14, 2011

Whose PI? Another classical copyright issue

My post this time was going to be about Michael John Blake. He recently posted a video on YouTube entitled "The Sound of Pi." In it he took the first 32 numbers of Pi, and using C for 1, D for 2, etc. created a melody using just the white keys of the piano. He then decided on a tempo (also based on Pi), and  recorded the melody on piano. Then did it three more times with three different keyboard instruments, and mixed them together creating an interesting a quirky canon.

My original post was going to have the video, and then talk about other ways composers have used numbers and mathematical equations to lay out music -- and not just in the late 20th/early 21st Century, either.

Instead, this post will harken back to one I wrote two weeks ago about the unintentional consequences of draconian copyright law. If you look at Michael Blake's YouTube channel, you'll find this immensely popular video has been deleted. Why? Because someone claimed copyright infringement.

YouTube lives under a sword of Damacles. In an unspoken agreement, the major media companies have agreed not to sue YouTube for allowing unauthorized copies of their content to be posted, if YouTube will immediately and without question yank any video that someone claims violates their copyright.

Because of the sheer volume of videos uploaded every day, YouTube could not afford to hire enough people to review every single clip that goes up. So if anyone complains, the assumption is guilty until proven innocent.

So why was Blake's work yanked? In 1992 composer and mathematician Lars Erickson composed a Pi symphony. This work is also based on the first 32 numbers of Pi.  Details are sketchy, but apparently Erickson claimed infringement and the video disappeared.

Is it a case of infringement? Hard to say. While the basic resource is identical, the methodologies are different. As near as I can determine, Erickson uses Pi to determine more than just the order of notes. Listening to excerpts of the Symphony side by side with Blake's Canon (that's not the name, but that's what it is), there's not only a significant difference in orchestration (which is a superficial difference), but also in tonal language, rhythms, compositional style, and many other factors.

To my ears, the two works in no way sound the same. So the question -- in my opinion -- boils down to this: is the concept of assigning notes to the first 32 digits of Pi something that is unique and copyrightable? Can a 12-tone row be copyrighted (not the finished composition, mind you, just the row)?

The major and minor scales have been around for centuries, as have the modes and other scales from other cultures. But what about the microtonal scales of Harry Partch? Are they copyrightable? Was Partch the only one who could legally use the building blocks of his music?

No one's gone to court on this one -- yet. Below are some links so you can decide for yourself. The first is an excerpt from Erickson's work. The second is the Blake video. The original has been deleted, but someone else has reposted it. At some point, I'm sure it will be removed -- so enjoy it while you can!


  1. Ralph, I agree with your conclusion, but I would state the reasoning slightly differently. Copyright law has never protected the functional elements of a work. For example, the ingredients and instructions for baking a chocolate cake are not protectible, since there is no creativity involved, and those elements are purely functional. In much the same way, a twelve-tone row, no matter how it was created, is not original but rather is functional in that it instructs how the work is to be created and performed. The work of creation that results may be protected by copyright, but only to the extent that another work is so similar to it that it can be said to infringe. Copyright law is complex enough as it is, but the technological developments that you highlight make it more so. When faced with a claim of infringement, the various platforms where the work is displayed or heard probably will elect to take it down rather than risk facing litigation, no matter how unmeritorious.

  2. It turns out there's more to story, according to TechDirt. It shows why many are uncomfortable with the guilty-until-proven-innocent (and sometimes not even then)-approach of YouTube et al. to DMCA take-down notices.

    "Erickson appears to admit that his issue wasn't copyright related at all, which suggests he knows that he has purposely misused the DMCA (a no-no) and could face sanctions for doing so. He only took it down because he was upset about Blake removing comments pointing people to his version. Now, it should be pointed out that, if true, this seems like a pretty petty move on Blake's part. Removing those comments is lame. But, that doesn't make it okay to abuse copyright law to issue a false takedown."

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