Original Compositions

An original composition will have copyright, it is that simple. Of course, it is perhaps not so simple because the litmus test is: when is it an “original” composition? And you know the question is always how to copyright music… And it isn’t just a question of slapping the copyright logo all over the place either!
Well, when we talk of creating something, that is precisely what we mean, but is the music/song you have composed fully original? If so, you have copyright. You have no protection for something you have copied, because then there is no originality in what you claim to be your work – you just copied it from elsewhere!
At the same time, all musicians know that composition works on influences, borrowing a phrase here and there, copying a style of playing etc. . Listen even to the great classical composers and you will hear snatches of phrases that you would swear came from another symphony whatever. (Listen to the lead solo in Chris Rea’s “Windy Town” and tell me it is not Sir Mark Knopfler playing, haha.) But that is not necessarily copying – or is it? Put another way -is there truly an originalpiano composition, for example?
What this conundrum illustrates is that there is often a fine line between an original composition and a copied one. To make things a little more murky, perhaps, the law also does not provide a clear line between when will something be an infringement and when not – hey, the law recognises that something can be an original composition overall, but in fact constitute an infringement of another’s copyright in part! How’s that now? And this is likely the position whether we are talking about the copyright laws in Australia, or the Canadian copyright laws….
The best guide, perhaps, is one’s own conscience as a composer….
There is an interesting little side-note here. No composer in the world owns the notes of a scale, nor the order or sequence in which they can be played, nor the time frame of notes (one beat, half a beat, syncopated, four beats, whatever) nor the spaces in between notes, and so on – you get the picture? All the composer – or lyricist, in the case of words, which are “owned” by nobody – gets in copyright is the right to prevent his work being copied. It is, after all, copyright that we are talking about – right?
So the corollary, or natural result, of this stems from the fact that it is possible, you must agree, for there to be two songs which sound the same, but are composed completely independently of each other. I’m just saying it’s possible – of course, the more developed or intricate the one composition, the less likely or probable the other, similar sounding, one was an independent creation, depending on which one came first.
This thing about “copying” can get mighty complicated – the law recognizes subconscious copying, even, as a form of copying. So, to take a random example, one of the new wave of Argentine or Japanese composers – hey it could be anyone, I ain’t picking on them! – it is not so simple to avoid an accusation of plagiarism by insisting: “But I never had his song sheet at my elbow when I wrote my own ‘Yesterday’, waddya mean I copied?” !!!
We noted above that even if your original composition sounds similar to someone else’s, it doesn’t mean you don’t have copyright. Nor does it necessarily mean that you have infringed his copyright. So long as you didn’t copy his work…. One additional note to be made is that “copying” does not mean a 100% copy. It means are there substantial similarities. And it does not have to be the whole song that has been “copied” or taken for there to be an infringement. Plus, an adaptation is also an infringement, and that means to adopt, use, or exploit – ie, if the features of the one work are recognisable in the other.
This is not intended to be a lecture on copyright infringement. Just remember these basic concepts when creating your own original composition!
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