fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

John Philip Sousa, player pianos, and fanfic

On a grading break (yes, at 4:30 in the morning), I indulged in a news article I've been wanting to read for a while now: Scales of Justice: How a terrible Supreme Court decision about player pianos made the cover song what it is today, over at Slate. I don't suppose it's really news if it's about a Supreme Court Case from 1908, but you get the idea.

The gist of it: back in the 1890s, song-writers like John Philip Sousa made the bulk of their money from sheet music sales of their song. This was before even radio, so (aside from live performances) this was really the only way they made money off their songs. Then came the player piano which cut down on the need for sheet music but that, more to the point, involved sheet-music -- so claimed Sousa. It was a written notation that allowed the reproduction of their songs, but it was written in holes on a roll of paper player-pianos could read rather than the written notation an actual pianist relied on. So the argument was made (and the Supreme Court bought this!) that those player piano rolls weren't really sheet music because they couldn't be read by humans, meaning the player piano co. could create a roll that would let the piano play "Stars and Stripes Forever" without Mr. Sousa seeing a cent from it all.

In the wake of all this, Congress passed a law grafting player-piano rolls into the existing copyright system. But it also set up a pretty neat system where anyone who wanted to play a song could do so without the original composer's permission, under two conditions: the song had actually been released commercially, and the person replaying it paid a standard fee to the original creator So if a town band out in Butte, Montana, wanted to play "Stars and Stripes" at their fourth of July picnic they could do that without having to get Sousa's permission. But similarly, if a disillusioned blues musician (the timelines don't add up, but work with me) wanted to recast it in a minor key and put it in a larger, more critical work, he could do that too. Tweaking was allowed. It's how you get genius like John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," which the story points out takes the Rodgers + Hammerstein classic and uses it as the jumping-off point to do something quite different.

I found two things fascinating about all this. First, the law being described doesn't seem to care much about the musicians' rights to control their own creation once they'd put it out in public. At all. If Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't care for the places Coltrane took "My Favorite Things," they had to be paid the standardized fee but they couldn't really object to it being put to those purposes. Once it's out in public, it's there for anyone to reimagine and re-create however they saw fit. This system of standardized royalties made sure the original artists got rewarded for their creativity, but it didn't give them the right to control how their creation was used.

And the other thing? Well, there's a common assumption the article discusses that if original creators don't have a financial incentive in producing songs worth listening to, they won't bother. The interesting thing this shows is how much creativity comes from being able to effectively share and build on things. It's a no-brainer, really, but it makes sense as well: there's a balance to be found between rewarding creators and freeing them to create cooperatively.

Which brings me to fanfic. This is all about music, and legally it makes no real difference to us, but it has me thinking a bit about how much better the creative sphere would be if we applied this same kind of mentality to fiction. If the operating principle was finding a balance between commercial and professional recognition of talent and making the ideas and memes (and I do mean that in Dennet's and Dawkin's sense, not just photos of cats) available so others could develop and perfect them. I'm not saying I want to be paid for my art. The suggestion that that would validate me is itself, well, devaluing. What I'm saying is that it should be a measure of success if you inspire fanfic and fanart and whatever else that pushes people to work with your ideas. If it's professional art --which is just as valid as the fannish economy of exchanges and gifts and just flat-out creation done for the love of the material-- that recognition should come with a financial gain.

I'm not sure the standardized royalty thing is the right way to go about it since the works we're producing aren't for purchase. My point is that this system seems to incentivized sharing and subcreation while at the same time opening up a system where people could build on other peoples' work. And that's really kind of beautiful. I think that's one of the things that makes working with Sherlock Holmes so fun, it's from a universe that has been so developed by so many different people, film and pastiche and now fanfic and fanart, and where it seems wide open to reinvention because of that history and because Doyle was so sick of Sherlock he didn't seem too bothered by what different people did with him. There's this sense of being able to build on, complete that story. You got it in Tolkien a bit as well with the "other minds and hands" thing, though I don't think JRRT quite let go of his creation as much as ACD did.

Anyway, reading about this history it made me wish we had something more like this for the written word. It seemed to be a good way of encouraging creativity. And it's interesting history aside from that, I think.
Tags: fandom, history, music
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