Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Plagiarism 3: The Webz are Alive with the Sound of… Copyright? Plagiarism? (Part A)

In a lot of the discussions regarding plagiarism and copyright, writers have brought in the concept of music. Specifically, sampling and "mixing" (as alleged plagiarist and young German author Helene Hegemann termed it… which started me on this line of posts).

The problem, of course, and most logicians would note: Writing and music are two different media.

To see if I could help with some record setting in regards to comparing music sampling/mixing and written plagiarism, I chatted with a couple of friends of mine who are musicians, one of which is also a DJ. In fact, both are so eloquent and well versed, I will be borrowing liberally from them. (But not plagiarizing as I will use quotation marks and proper attributions… AND… please patronize these fabulous people if you see them online or catch them at a convention!) In short: this blog post will read more like a "guest blog."

(Edit to note: Because the two people I chatted with were kind enough to give me wonderful responses with more details than I could conceive of, myself, I'm giving each her/his own post… Today we will chat with Roberta Rogow.)

One friend, Roberta Rogow, is a well-known and well-respected filker in the Northeast. Her credits, as she wrote them: "I've been writing, performing and recording Filk since 1976; I've written an article on Filk in The Encyclopedia of Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy; I have published filk lyrics in my own fanzine Rec-Room Rhymes since 1978. I've been running the Filk Track at Lunacon (the NYC area SF Convention) since 2003. And I'm going to be Filk Guest of Honor at I-Con in March 2010! I currently have two CDs available: Rogow, Alive and Filking and One Filk, Two Filk, Old Filk, New Filk, both recorded by Harold Stein's Floating Filk studio."

I also happen to know that Roberta has a great mystery book out as well and while she doesn't currently have a website, I will gladly link to the Amazon page for her book, THE GUILTY CLIENT.

What's filk and why do I bring it up? Well… if you didn't follow the link on "filker" above, basically filk is a type of folk music that draws from science fiction and fantasy literature, television, and movies - often borrowing or using tunes from classic folk, rock, country, and other music (including hip-hop, rap, metal… it's pretty varied). The name originates from a typo of "folk" in a convention that happened before I was born - though the matching of genre topics to folksy music and concerts has continued advancement under said typo. Most of filk falls under "parody" in regards to copyright laws, so there isn't the plagiarism stigma… but, filk musicians still have to navigate the rough waters of copyright law and proper attribution.

Now, I'll let Roberta speak for herself (with a few proofreading edits):

Filk started out as parody... taking a familiar tune and putting new words to it. There's nothing wrong with this; it's a got a long and honorable pedigree. After all, "The Star-Spangled Banner" poem was sung to the English drinking-song, "To Anacreaon in Heaven", and no one seemed to mind.

However... there's one big caveat: singing these songs in a more-or-less private gathering like a SF Con filk circle is one thing... publishing them, or recording them is quite another. As I have found out!

When I recorded my first audiotapes back in 1984, I paid royalties on the tunes I used through the Harry Fox Agency, which handles these things. Over time, the fees have grown, to the point where my CD Rogow Alive and Filking cost the producer more than $500 in copyright fees. And this is for a measly little 500-item deal!

The result is that filkers either write their own music or comb the archives for material that is in the Public Domain. And you'd be surprised what is not in the Public Domain, because it's not a "folk song" in the traditional sense. All of Woody Guthrie's output is under copyright; so is Sholem Secunda's (he wrote "Dona, Dona" and many other Yiddish classics) and "The Unicorn Song" (Shel Silverstein). Don't touch Bob Dylan or Paul Simon; Canadian Stan Rogers, a filk favorite, is similarly off-limits for recording. You can sing the parodies in the privacy of a Con or a house-filk, because that's not "public performance," but recording and distributing said recordings is definitely "public," and for that, the composer gets compensation. In some cases, the composer doesn't want anyone touching her work without her co-operation (which is why I can't record anything originally written by Dolly Parton).

If you use the tune written by another filker, that's within the boundaries of filk parody. There are so many parodies of "Banned From Argo" that they've been collected into a fanzine, "Bastard Sons of Argo." And the US Supreme Court has ruled that parody is legal, especially if done with comedic or satiric intent, as a commentary on the orginals, as done in Mad Magazine, or by Weird Al Yankovich, […].

Filk lyrics often riff off someone else's work. There are countless songs about the Star Trek and Star Wars characters; songs based on Tolkein's Lord of the Rings saga; songs that derive from all sorts of novels and movies and TV shows. This is considered acceptable, because you're not directly copying someone else's work, you're commenting on it in a way. And when you perform the material, you always cite the original source, if it isn't immediately obvious (as with my ballad "The Woman in the Snow", which I always attribute to a story written by Patricia McKissick).

There are one or two authors who are extremely leery of filkers or anyone else messing with their characters. There was a notorious case back in the late 1980's, where someone used a character in a well-known series in a fanzine story, and the original author not only sued, but won her case. Since I wrote a filk about said character, I have been very careful about recording that particular song. However, most authors are one with Harry Turtledove, who said "I'd be jazzed!" when I asked if he minded when other people were inspired to write something in response to one of his books. They look at filk as free advertising... if someone sings about their books in a filk circle, the listeners may want to go out and read them, just to find out what the song was about.

A general rule about parodies: you can get away with a lot if you're trying to be funny. But parody is not plagiarism, because there's a creative element to it. I may "borrow" a tune, but the lyrics are mine. Setting someone else's poem to an original tune is certainly not plagiarism, because the original poet is acknowledged. Plagiarism involves saying that someone else's work is your own, and filk is definitely not that.

So, in the case of filk, the response to Hegemann and her take on "plagiarism" is that she needed to credit her sources, still. On a CD, one can do that in the cover and in the blurb for the song; in concert, since most filkers perform pretty openly at conventions, I have heard them give credit where credit is due, also.

Rather than talking food on Friday, it will be my pleasure to include my friend Dan Kupka's response to this question! He goes into even more detail in regards to "mixing" as both a DJ and composer.

Until then, what do you think of using the medium of music as a comparison to writing in regards to copyright and plagiarism? While both are art forms, what makes the difference and how much leeway is there?


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