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Posts Tagged ‘mortal instruments’

To those who believe with the fiery passion of a thousand suns that “Stairway to Heaven” is the greatest rock-n-roll song ever written, the current lawsuit over its opening notes is akin of blasphemy of the highest order, an attack of the Temple of Music itself, a barbaric assault on the foundations of late-Baby Boomer culture.

To those of us who simply believe that “Stairway to Heaven” was the greatest song of the rock-n-roll era because, well, we just do, we’re not happy either.

But is our wrath/tepid disapproval misplaced? Was the song lifted (consciously or unconsciously) from Spirit’s “Taurus”?

I haven’t the faintest idea. And fortunately, I’m not on that committee, er, jury.

But the question does arise (and too frequently now): What constitutes plagiarism? The standards, as I understand them, differ from music to fiction, but the question is the same. Recently, Sherrilyn Kenyon sued Cassandra Clare over the “Mortal Instruments” franchise. How that will end remains to be seen. Still, we are all operating from a common folkloric heritage which hardly varies even among disparate cultures. In other words, there’s nothing new under the sun. So what qualifies as “original”?

Spider Robinson won a Hugo for his short story, “Melancholy Elephants,” in which the government is contemplating extending copyrights in perpetuity. The story questions the consequences thereof. Hardly SF, really, but it won anyway.* I voted for it.

It seems, however, that we have enough unintended consequences already, with copyright “only” extending 75 years past the author’s death. (Which is silly enough. I mean, to 99% of authors, it’s beyond meaningless.) And the “Stairway” lawsuit is only about the opening chords of the song. Not the whole song, not the lyrics. Just the opening. The defense argues that both songs are based on old folk music, which may well be true. But even if it’s not, how much do you have to copy to violate copyright? I mean, notes are notes, right? Even if it’s all in how you put them together, there are still only a finite number of ways to do that, and if you break songs into their parts, pretty soon nobody will be able to write anything unless he can prove he never listened to music (or read a book) before putting pen to paper.

To put it in fiction terms, can you sue someone for using the sentence, “The man walked to the store,” just because you used it first? If Godzilla stomped Tokyo, does that mean no other kaiju can ever “stomp” a city? And what about all the resurgence in interest in “Golden Age Science Fiction”? Are we even allowed to write that stuff, or will we violate a copyright for a story written before we were born and never reprinted?

Most of us won’t have to worry, of course, because no one sues over a work that doesn’t make a truckload of money. But it’s the principle of the thing. We–

–wait, what? “Truckload of money” is copyright-protected? Then I guess I’m done. Just let me write “The End,” and… no, don’t tell me…

 

*Oddly enough, there was no “Social justice warriors are ruining SF!” outcry in 1982. Let’s hope the Sad Puppies don’t have access to a time machine.

 

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