Copyrighting Musical Sequences To Prevent Lawsuits
Written by David Conrad   
Sunday, 01 March 2020

In an attempt to put an end to musicians being sued for infringement of copyright, lawyer/musician/programmer Damien Riehl teamed up with musician/programmer Noah Rubin to create a melody database which has been released using a Creative Commons Zero license.

In recent high profile copyright cases for song melodies, defendants have been accused of "subconsciously infringing" the copyright of music they could have heard. So "having access" to a tune is enough to put musicians at risk of costly litigation. Damien Riehl's argument is that making all possible song melodies accessible in the public domain will frustrate future lawsuits. This is why he embarked on a project to generate all the song melodies that could be subject to future lawsuits and store them in compressed format on a 2.6 Terabyte drive that he can hold in his hand.

For the full story, here is Reihl's Ted Talk with the title "Copyrighting all the melodies to avoid accidental infringement": 

What I find interesting is that given a problem whose premise is that current copyright law is at risk of severely limiting future music creation and future human creativity, the approach taken involves seeing music as numbers, with a finite number of possible melodies and thinking like a programmer.  


Reihl has been programming since 1985 and, as he explains in the TED Talk, it was his combined experience in the law, technology - and music that inspired the approach. His collaborator, Rubin, met through working together on a cybersecurity contract, is a musician as well as a coder. Their brute force solution was to algorithmically generate every single possible melody using combinations of just 8 notes and write them into MIDI files, a process that took 6 days. Once "affixed to a physical medium", i.e. stored on a hard disk, they are deemed copyrighted. However, as both the database and the source code for the algorithm have been released under the Creative Commons Zero license, Rubin and Reihl have ‘no rights reserved’.

A second video, from Adam Neely, of interviews with both Riehl and Rubin, contains more details about the math. Using the octave starting at middle C, which Rubin says is "what most popular music is made of" and a length of 12 as "that's what was feasible given the compute that we had" they produced 8^12, i.e. 68.7 billion melodies. 

Another statistic in this short video is that having 3 million views on You Tube could be enough to make a melody "accessible". This is because the high profile Katy Perry v Flame lawsuit, where she was successfully sued for the resemblance between her song Dark Horse to the Flame song Joyful Noise, the evidence for Perry having access to the plaintiff's creation was that close to 3 million viewers had watched the video on You Tube. Neely therefore argues that if the combined view-count of his video plus that of the TED Talk plus his video were to exceed 3 million views that might be enough to constitute access and since all the melodies and the tools for creating them are in the public domain, maybe any melody written subsequently will need to prove it didn't have access to this video. Summing this up in the final comment:

"I don't know... the whole [copyright] system is screwed anyway, so why not just approach this way like kind of a troll strategy."

It isn't just in the realm of popular music, or musical jingles in video games, where the copyright system appears to be screwed. Programmers are currently anxiously awaiting the verdict of the US Supreme Court in the matter of Oracle v Google and whether or not APIs are copyrightable. And then of course we've already witnessed the folly of the EU Copyright Directive. It would indeed be good if Reihl and Rubin's initiative could persuade the legal system that copyright is a broken tool and needs completely rethinking. 

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 01 March 2020 )