A Short Note on Copyright and Notation/Recording

The role of notation in European art music has slowly changed over the last half century from a means of recording to a means of production. Perhaps when a renaissance musician wrote down a piece of music for vihuela it was similar to Toumani Diabate going into the studio to record a new version of “Kaira.” Both musicians could improvise that piece without the technology they use to record it. 

The vihuela player could play and compose the piece on the instrument itself, he did not need a piece of paper to plan it out. Toumani could improvise a new version of “Kaira” without multi-tracking the three voices first in the studio, then learning them as one solo piece from a recording. But, in contrast, by the time Bach was composing “The Art of Fugue” notation had become more of a means to an end, and by the time Beethoven had lost his hearing it was the art form itself, the means of production as well as the means of physical representation. 

Toumani’s early work in the studio is closer to early renaissance composers, a spontaneous composition captured by the technology at hand, paper  in one instance and tape in another. On the other hand, a 21st century DJ uses digital technology in a way that is closer to how Beethoven used the quill pen.

This impacts on the question of ownership because there is a connection between the physicality of a musical piece, ie how concrete and immutable it can be made, and the requirements of assigning ownership. It is difficult to assign ownership to a kora composition passed down through generations. Only when it exists in a single finite form produced by a single individual standing somewhat apart from history, can the question of ownership begin to be asserted. If technology (paper or machine) is used as the means of production, something “new” can perhaps be created, and ownership asserted. But when it comes from the fingers of a musician who created it at the instrument, from memories and impressions that are hard to pin down and impossible to track, then the question of ownership becomes problematic.

It is this question which faces all so-called traditional musicians in today’s music. Or perhaps it is a question which needs to be asked of those who formed the idea of copyright in the first place. 


Derek Gripper