David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
from the world's big
Start Learning

An algorithm produced every possible melody. Now its creators want to destroy songwriter copyrights.

A computer coder and a lawyer decide they have a right to speak for all the songwriters that ever lived, those who are alive today, and all those yet to be born.

Image source: Seeme/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • A computer coder calculated all of the possible 8-measure, 12-beat melodies possible from Western music's 12 notes.
  • The coder and a lawyer decided to claim ownership of every song melody ever.
  • The two of them submitted all of these songs into the public domain so no one could ever be found in court to be plagiarizing a song.

If we learned anything at all from Jurassic Park, it's that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it. Even so, coder Noah Rubin and lawyer Damien Riehl decided to construct an algorithm they claim can produce every 8-bar, 12-beat Western melody possible. In Western music there are only 12 notes in an octave, and thus a limited number of possible melodies, reputedly 68,719,476,736. So the database they've generated contains every song ever written and all of the ones that ever will be.

The fact that the duo decided on the 8-bar length is no coincidence — it's the length often used to signify copyright infraction when someone is brought to court for plagiarizing a song copyrighted by someone else. That decision reveals why the project is less a "gee whiz, look at what we can do with math" programming experiment into a sweeping attack on songwriters' rights. How? Because they've just released their entire database of algorithmically generated melodies into the public domain to nullify anyone's right to claim ownership of — and thus derive compensation from — any of them. If this holds up in courts, they will have deprived songwriters of what little legal recourse they have if someone steals their song.

Why on Earth would they do this?

"Uptown Funk" producer Jeff Bhasker and Bruno Mars with their Grammy award

Image source: Robyn Beck/Getty

The motivation for Rubin and Riehl's project was putatively the duo's sympathy for famous — often wealthy — music stars who are sued for compensation by the original composer of melodies upon which their hits are based. One might suspect the duo are covertly engaging in a theft of their own, trying to steal a bit of fame fame from defendants. They even have a TEDTalk.

Successful musicians go through this all the time. Sometimes the claims of plagiarism are valid, sometimes ridiculous, but which is which is for courts to decide, and similarities between songs may be subtle or obvious.

The problem goes way back. George Harrison turned the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" into "My Sweet Lord" while his former bandmate John Lennon pinched much of Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" for The Beatles' "Come Together." Berry's music was also, um, "borrowed from" by the Beach Boys: Their breakthrough hit "Surfin' USA" was nearly identical to his "Sweet Little Sixteen." "You Can't Touch This" by M.C Hammer was built over a phrase from Rick James" "Super Freak."

More recently, Sam Smith was sued for the similarity of "Stay With Me" to "I Won't Back Down" written by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. And though "Uptown Funk" can make people at a funeral get up and dance, there's no question that there are little bits of various other songs in there, and lawsuits have caused changes to the record's credits and royalty fees in recognition of the track's sources.

The list goes on and on. These are all examples of one well-known party suing another, and that's definitely a frequent scenario. However, copyrights also protect unknown songwriters from plagiarism in those rare cases when a songwriter can actually afford to hire counsel to press for restitution. It's therefore pretty weak protection to start with.

Full disclosure: I'm an unknown songwriter.

Why this happens so much

Image source: Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto/Getty

Creativity — in whatever area — involves a re-synthesis of an artist's influences into something new. All of the songs a songwriter has heard are the ingredients from which new songs are made. Songwriters are usually avid, if not rabid, music fans. The re-synthesis is typically unconscious, and in court defendants are often found guilty of "unconscious plagiarism."

Clearly a fine balance must be struck in assessing plagiarism. A songwriter must be free to mash together and rework everything they've heard, just so long as they're not seen to be simply reusing someone else's composition. Accidents will happen, as will outright theft.

If it wasn't already crushingly hard for a financially struggling artist to derive any compensation for their creations, maybe what Rubin and Riehl have done wouldn't be so outrageous and offensive. However, the two have decided — on their own — to deprive every single songwriter with a U.S. copyright of the one meager tool they have to address being plagiarized by others, just because they decided to do so.

How serious a threat their project poses is unclear. Not only are Rubin and Riehl implicitly claiming ownership for all song melodies yet to be written — which is likely to be contested —they're also claiming it for every song that exists — which definitely will come as an unwelcome surprise to the actual composers. (And more attention for Rubin and Riehl.)

Who really owns a song?

Rubin and Rielh's database is aimed squarely at Western music and U.S. copyrights. In this capitalist country, it's assumed that ownership confers financial rights. This isn't true everywhere around the world. Nonetheless, unless American society wants to provide for its songwriters some other way, financial reward remains their only possible compensation, and it's already almost impossibly difficult to acquire.

To be fair, not all Americans agree with the idea of song ownership. As legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie's once put it on a song's sheet music:

"This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. "

LIVE TOMORROW | Jordan Klepper: Comedians vs. the apocalypse

Join The Daily Show comedian Jordan Klepper and elite improviser Bob Kulhan live at 1 pm ET on Tuesday, July 14!

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
Keep reading Show less

LGBTQ+ community sees spike in first-time depression in wake of coronavirus​

Gender and sexual minority populations are experiencing rising anxiety and depression rates during the pandemic.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Anxiety and depression rates are spiking in the LGBTQ+ community, and especially in individuals who hadn't struggled with those issues in the past.
  • Overall, depression increased by an average PHQ-9 score of 1.21 and anxiety increased by an average GAD-7 score of 3.11.
  • The researchers recommended that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.
Keep reading Show less

The mind-blowing science of black holes

What we know about black holes is both fascinating and scary.

  • When it comes to black holes, science simultaneously knows so much and so little, which is why they are so fascinating. Focusing on what we do know, this group of astronomers, educators, and physicists share some of the most incredible facts about the powerful and mysterious objects.
  • A black hole is so massive that light (and anything else it swallows) can't escape, says Bill Nye. You can't see a black hole, theoretical physicists Michio Kaku and Christophe Galfard explain, because it is too dark. What you can see, however, is the distortion of light around it caused by its extreme gravity.
  • Explaining one unsettling concept from astrophysics called spaghettification, astronomer Michelle Thaller says that "If you got close to a black hole there would be tides over your body that small that would rip you apart into basically a strand of spaghetti that would fall down the black hole."

Scroll down to load more…