Wednesday, 17 August 2011

How much is your silence worth?

Copyright is a funny old thing - it's meant to protect creative works and provide incentive to creativity by virtue of guaranteeing some form of property rights over works so that people will make new and original pieces of music, literature, art, etc. Every now and then the dogged pursuit of those people thought to be exploiting or violating copyright by virtue of taking something that isn't theirs and sharing it without the consent of the rights holder(s) results in some rather bizarre events.

Take for instance the strange case of John Cage's piece of experimental 'music' 4'33" - a 3-movement piece of music composed for any instrument during which the score instructs the musician to not play any music so that the audience can take in the ambient sounds of their environment. More often than not this results in silence, or at the very least, near silence. The track is well-known in the UK and was even the subject of an attempt to thwart the domination of the Christmas No. 1 slot by X-Factor contestants in 2010, catchily entitled Cage Against The Machine (after the success of the Rage Against The Machine campaign the year prior).

No doubt, some people may appreciate the artistic significance of the break in instrumentation (some of Cage's works prior to this piece feature silence prominently) while many will think of this silence as little more than an artistic prank. Nevertheless, the track has been written, recorded and performed by Cage, thus enshrining it's position within the realm of copyright. Strangely, the iTunes single version of the track is 4'39" and features some noise in the first 5 seconds, perhaps to alert purchasers to the fact the silence is 'playing'

So it was with some amusement that I stumbled across this post which points to a copyright infringement claim by Warner Music Group against a YouTube user AdamLore who posted the Cage track to the videosharing site on the 8th of November 2009.  In cases whereby rights holders dispute that users of YouTube are not entitled to share such works they can go through a series of procedures to notify the site that a violation has occurred - this tends to result in the audio being stripped from the video and oftentimes replaced with something different.  This is what happened in the case of the AdamLore video - see below:

This is not the first time that Cage's silence has been the centre of a copyright dispute.  In 2002, the British composer Mike Batt (best known in the UK as the creator of the children's TV series The Wombles) found himself at the centre of a legal dispute over the track "A One Minute Silence" on an album by his band, The Planets. Strangely enough, there was a remarkable similarity between Batt's silence and Cage's silence. This eventually led to an out-of-court settlement in which Batt handed over an undisclosed six-figure settlement to the John Cage Trust, as well as Cage being co-credited as writer of the track. At the time Batt gave a cheque to representatives of Cage's publishers Edition Peters on the steps of the High Court in London, who stated that:

We had been prepared to make our point more strongly on behalf of Mr Cage's estate, because we do feel that the concept of a silent piece -- particularly as it was credited by Mr Batt as being co-written by "Cage" -- is a valuable artistic concept in which there is a copyright ... We are nevertheless very pleased to have reached agreement with Mr Batt over this dispute, and we accept his donation in good spirit.
The point here is that Edition Peters own the publishing rights to Cage's work, not Warner Music Group, so how is it that the latter firm were able to get unofficially posted videos silenced under the guise of copyright violations?  It's not as if the AdamLore video is the only one to be silenced - there are others too (see ServeTheBeaver), suggesting that this instance might be more of a case of people poking fun at overbearing copyright. However, the notion of silence being owned is still an intriguing one.  Is this a case of copyright going too far or does it represent the justifiable rights of a copyright holder protecting their estate?

NB: it's worth reading through a few of the comments on AdamLore's video as they suggest that if someone was to upload a legally purchased version of 4'33" to YouTube the track is not automatically flagged as violating the ToS. I don't intend to do so myself but if you can confirm this I'd be happy to hear from you. AdamLore himself states that the WMG notice is a prank, serving to highlight the rather heavy-handed powers of copyright enforcement


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