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As most are aware, the Fourth of July is the celebration of the political separation of the 13 original American colonies from England, which was marked by the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But many don’t realize that while the founders of America were writing the laws that would become the foundation of our democracy, they also kept a few souvenirs, so to speak. In fact, U.S. copyright law was originally modeled after England’s 1710 enactment of the Statute of Anne, which is considered to be the first copyright act in the world. Before the U.S. Constitution, the founders recognized that copyright laws would be an important part of the growth of our young nation.
In 1790, after the Constitution was ratified, the first Congress added the copyright provision making it federal law, with the primary purpose of copyright being to induce and reward authors through the provision of property rights, to create and distribute new works of authorship for the public to enjoy.
These early laws are why those of us across the U.S. can enjoy a wealth of music as we fire up our barbeque grills, enjoy the fireworks, and listen to the songs we love as we celebrate Independence Day. If it wasn’t for copyright law, today’s musicians and songwriters would not have the incentive to continue creating new music and the ability to earn a living from doing so. And we wouldn’t have the wealth of songs, artists, and musical genres available to enjoy today.
In fact, the music landscape in America is as diverse as the people who call this country home. While this country’s journey to gain independence has been a long road filled with hard truths, American songwriters and musicians have created a plethora of music that both celebrates and comments on the American experience. The work of these trailblazing artists has ushered in entire genres of music that are uniquely American, including jazz, rock and roll, country, and hip-hop.
Speaking of music that chronicles America, the Library of Congress offers a Patriotic Melodies collection that includes a combination of hymns, national songs, music of the theater, radio and television, military themes, and poetry. The collection is only a sampling of patriotic music created and it gives us brilliant snapshots of a maturing nation through the decades while one theme remains constant—American pride and dreams.
It has been said there is nothing more American than apple pie, which is where the song American Pie by singer-songwriter Don McLean got its name. While McLean has famously kept the song’s full meaning under wraps, the lyrics make it clear he is commenting on life in America. The most McLean has divulged is, “Basically in American Pie things are heading in the wrong direction, becoming less ideal, less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right, but it is a morality song in a sense.” The song might not be a celebration of America, but it is an expression of one American creator’s feelings that has resonated with generations of people.
Living in American
Living in America performed by James Brown and written by Dan Hartman is a song that celebrates the freedoms people enjoy, living in the U.S. “Living in America, hand in hand, across the nation. Living in America, got to have a celebration, rock my soul!” The lyrics celebrate Americans having the freedom to travel our nation from coast to coast. It is no coincidence that the song, which debuted in 1985, depicts a stark contrast between American life and the Berlin Wall era and Cold War Soviet Union. An interesting sidenote is that Rolling Stone magazine named James Brown “the most sampled man in music.” (To learn more about music sampling and copyright implications, join our free creator membership and watch our webinar on digital sampling.)
American Dreamin by Jay-Z is another song about this country that also uses digital sampling—a truly American innovation. The song makes connections between the idea of the American dream and what it was like growing up in Brooklyn, New York. It creates a clear picture of the Black experience and inequalities in America that are still relevant today. However, many agree that Jay-Z wrote the song in a way that it is relatable to many people reaching for their own American dream. (You can read more about Jay-Z in our blog from last summer titled Hip Hop and the Engine of Free Expression.)
Color Me America
Color Me America is a song written and performed by Dolly Parton. This patriotic anthem is about being proud of where you come from in a post 9/11 America. The song lyrics, “I want justice for us all so color me America, red, white and blue,” is a call to action for equality among all who call America home. This is not Parton’s only song about this country. Her fortieth solo studio album, which is titled For God and Country, includes both covers of patriotic songs and some of Parton’s original songs.
Party in the U.S.A
Party in the U.S.A performed by Miley Cyrus is a popular anthem about a small-town kid who moves to a big city and how music—of all things—makes her feel at home. Music connects people across this country, it connects people across the world. Whether you are from a small town or a big city, “when the Jay-Z song is on” or “the Britney song is on,” music can make us feel welcome, it can make us feel prideful, it can make us feel hopeful. Isn’t that what America was built on—welcoming those looking for liberty and hope?
So, as you celebrate Independence Day and recall that it was marked by the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it’s also worth remembering that these actions eventually lead to the origins of copyright law. And like Independence Day, copyright provides creators with the freedom to create, the right to reproduce and distribute their work for the public to enjoy, and empowers them to keep on creating. No wonder so many songwriters and musicians have written and sung songs about America.