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CC at Notacon


I spent the past weekend at Notacon in Cleveland, OH. While there was one talk devoted to a brief history of copyright in the US, the most exciting talk, for me, was completely unexpected.

Jerry Rockwell presented a talk called “Evolution of a Tune: My process of arranging and composing in a Home Studio.” I went because I have a MIDI keyboard hooked up to my iMac that doesn’t get nearly the use it should. Jerry’s talk was absolutely amazing, and it was done without the use of any props more advanced than a CD player. While I expected him to talk about the software and hardware he uses in his home studio, he instead focused on how he starts with a basic tune or melody, and builds layers and tracks on top of that. Coming from a folk and jazz guitar background, Jerry plays guitar, dulcimer and synth tracks (“my evolved click track”) to create amazing compositions. Did I mention he hand crafts his dulcimers without the aid of power tools?

So what’s the CC connection? Jerry demonstrated taking the traditional tune “Skip to my Lou”, and building completely transformative, derivative works from it. The final product was a Latin 8-8 beat dulcimer/guitar number that sounded nothing like the original work it was built on. You could still hear the chord structures underneath it all, but there was no denying that Jerry had created an original composition, drawing from culture in the public domain. Talking to Jerry afterwards, I commented on how the final composition sounded nothing like “Skip to my Lou”, but how it could not have existed without “Skip to my Lou” to build upon.

“Exactly! I chose Skip to my Lou because I hate that song, and wanted to appropriate it for something better,” Jerry enthusiastically responded. It was something of an epiphany for me: here was the reason CC is important, in the flesh. If “Skip to my Lou” wasn’t a public domain, traditional number, there’s no way Jerry would have come up with his composition. Or if he had, he would not have been allowed to contribute his work to our culture. CC is important in this respect because the Jerry’s of the future may have nothing to build on if copyright protections continue to grow unfettered. And that would be criminal.

Posted 12 April 2005