That new song you heard the other day might not really be new, according to a pair of programmer-musicians. Damien Riehl and Noah Rubin created an algorithm to generate every possible melody, and they copyrighted it. This isn’t a scheme to sue people, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. Riehl and Rubin have released the contents of their universal melody hard drive into the public domain in hopes of saving musicians from frivolous lawsuits.
Copyright law can be confusing and unduly punitive when applied universally, and the length of copyright is being extended all the time. Plagiarism is easy to spot in some types of art. For example, there are more than 100,000 words in the English language. The odds of someone inventing the same paragraph as someone else is vanishingly small. However, every melody consists of the same eight notes.
We tend to think of writing music as the creation of something new, but Riehl wondered if it’s more akin to selecting one of the finite number of melodies that have always existed. If that’s the case, then is it fair to punish people for selecting a similar melody to one used in a previous work even if that wasn’t the intention? Riehl points out George Harrison of the Beatles ran into problems with the melody of ‘My Sweet Lord.” The Chiffons claimed the melody was too close to “He’s so fine.” That case cost Harrison $1.5 million in damages plus whatever he spent on legal fees. Harrison had the money to swing that, but a young independent artist could be ruined by such a case.
Riehl and Rubin developed an algorithm that generated every possible combination of 8-note, 12-beat melodies. In MIDI format, the notes are just numbers on a hard drive. So, the algorithm was able to churn through the combinations at a rate of 300,000 per second. Riehl compares the process to brute-forcing a password by trying every possible combination of characters.
Many of the melodies generated by the algorithm would be unpleasant — the artistry comes in choosing a good melody, and most people don’t have an ear for that. The question raised by this project is whether a melody should be copyrightable. If you can express melodies as numbers that have existed since the beginning of time, maybe not.
Riehl and Rubin have released the melodies and the algorithm used to generate them under a Creative Commons Zero license. That means the paid have reserved no rights — you can download the 600GB archive and do whatever you want with it. It’s unclear if this will stop anyone from being sued for copyright infringement of a melody, but it wouldn’t be the craziest argument ever used in a copyright trial.
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