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Running Out Of Music

Attorneys Appearing in Court

Those of you who have an interest in music have almost certainly been watching the uptick in music-related lawsuits with bated breath. Music copyright is extraordinarily complex, in large part because music itself is so complex. One of the elements artists will base copyright claims on is melody. In an effort to combat these copyright claims, lawyer Damien Riehl and programmer Noah Rubin created All the Music.

All the Music seeks to put as many melodies into public domain as possible. They did this by taking an eight note octave starting on middle C, and creating every possible ten note variation of that octave. They did this through brute force: C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C, then C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-D, and so on. They recorded these melodies in MIDI format, then copied them to a hard drive in order to meet the standards for a copyrightable work. They then put the entire thing in the public domain. What’s more, they released the code that they used to create these melodies so that users can change the code in order to generate melodies in different octaves, with sharps and flats, and with rhythmic variations.

Now, even all this doesn’t account for all possible variations in music. Harmonies aren’t included. The use of different instruments and backing rhythmic patterns isn’t included. There are an almost indescribable number of timbres you might imagine and there are a lot more words available than notes, so lyrics are not accounted for. There are also entire systems of melody excluded, like just intonation or the microtonal music common in some countries.

One might find it difficult to predict exactly what consequences All the Music might have on music litigation. One can, however, quite clearly see the consequences music litigation has on creating music. There are only so many melodies, and as we continue to create more music at a faster clip, we will soon exhaust all possible melodies. Given that this is the case, we could, ostensibly, reach a point where no one can write music anymore because no melodies are available. That’s pretty patently absurd, and the idea that songwriters would neglect to release a song for fear that they’ll have to split royalties with a relatively unknown Soundcloud producer whose music they’d never heard in their life is obviously problematic. Avoiding a chilling effect on musicians is important for anyone who is a fan of music.

Whether All the Music will serve as an actual tool to rebut copyright claims or as a simple experiment to showcase the absurdity of music law as it’s currently formulated, remains to be seen. What we do know is that technology continues to transform the legal landscape, from how law firms operate to how rapidly machines can copyright datasets. As things continue to shift, we’ll be here for you, whether you need an appearance attorney on call or you’re looking for information on the fascinating edge of technology and the law.