Reaction to "Igor Stravinsky's Copyright Blues"

Subject: Re: MTT Files Program 4: Igor Stravinsky's Copyright Blues

Regarding "The MTT Files" Program #4 ("Igor Stravinsky's Copyright Blues"), which aired on San Francisco's KALW radio tonight:

Michael Tilson Thomas's intertwined history of music publishing and Stravinsky's composing life was fascinating and enjoyable — but may I register a complaint? The program came very close to being a probing look at copyright and control, only to shy away and simply reiterate Stravinsky's grievances without examining them too deeply.

For example:

Stravinsky objected strenuously to music from his ballet "The Firebird" being rearranged as a popular song, "Summer Moon". In fact, he objected so much that he sued his American publisher for allowing it to happen, on the basis that the rearrangement was devoid of musical merit.

In his sympathic recounting of Stravinsky's claim that the music had been damaged, Michael Tilson Thomas falls into the trap of treating music as though it were a physical object. The problem with this is easy to explain: if you damage my bicycle, now I cannot ride it, but if you "damage" my song, the world now has both my original version and your new version. Nothing has been lost, something has only been gained. Ultimately, a song cannot be destroyed or damaged. It can be copied, but the original always remains, no matter what is done with a particular copy.

An artist's attempt to suppress derivative works, as Stravinsky did, is simply censorship by another name. After all, no one was asking Stravinsky to endorse "Summer Moon" artistically. His good name and musical reputation were not on the line: he was always free to disparage "Summer Moon" and dissociate himself from it, if he wanted to.

But by attempting to suppress the song, Stravinsky went from mere disdain to outright hypocrisy. After all, in his own compositions, he had long made liberal use of others' work — not only of folk tunes, but of composed and attributed music, such as in the Pulcinella Suite. Would Stravinsky say that Giovanni Pergolesi (or Pergolesi's heirs) should have the right to sue Stravinsky for rearrangements that Pergolesi would probably have found strange? Of course not. And just as Stravinsky was free to build on the work of his predecessors and peers, he should have extended the same rights to others.

My point is not that we should blame Stravinsky — he was behaving the way the copyright system encouraged him to behave, and no differently from many other composers. But an examination of music and copyright, even if it springs from a story about a particular Stravinsky rehearsal, should do more than perpetuate the all-too-common perception that the way copyright enables artists to "control" their work is an uncontroversial and natural right. The reality is far more complex than that. It's no coincidence that modern copyright law descends directly from a sixteenth-century English censorship law, a history that Michael Tilson Thomas unfortunately didn't have time to cover.

-Karl Fogel

1 Comment