Why Copyright Has Helped Bob Dylan

Last Friday, two days before the GRAMMYs, Bob Dylan was honored as the 2015 Person of the Year by MusiCares, a philanthropic arm of the Recording Academy. He gave an acceptance speech, in which he thanks people such as John Hammond, the talent scout who signed him to Columbia Records, Artie Mogull, a music publisher with Witmark Music who supported Dylan, as well as numerous artists who recorded his songs and turned them into hits. Despite the fact that his speech had nothing to do with copyright law, Reason penned an article that takes several quotes from the speech out of context and mischaracterizes them in order to suggest that Bob Dylan believes copyright law to be detrimental.

Of course, the notion that Bob Dylan would take the opportunity to criticize copyright laws while being honored by the organization that recently announced a new Creators Alliance to advocate for artists’ rights is ridiculous, yet Reason suggests exactly that. Reason focuses on two specific segments of Dylan’s speech in order to suggest that Dylan believes others should be able to freely exploit his music.

First, Reason highlights how Bob Dylan recognized others who have recorded his songs. For instance, Dylan stated, “I also have to mention some of the early artists who recorded my songs very, very early, without having to be asked.” On first glance, this could somehow suggest Dylan is advocating for some type of copyright-free system, where anyone can use the expression of anyone else. What Reason neglects to mention; however, is that Dylan receives mechanical royalties every time his song is recorded. Further, Dylan was being honored for his contributions to American culture as a songwriter, so it only makes sense that he would acknowledge other artists who have made his songs big by “singing the truth.” To the contrary, it is clear that Dylan is actually very thankful for having copyright protection. For instance, Dylan went on to say:

“The Byrds, the Turtles, Sonny & Cher—they made some of my songs Top 10 hits but I wasn’t a pop songwriter and I really didn’t want to be that, but it was good that it happened. Their versions of songs were like commercials, but I didn’t really mind that because 50 years later my songs were being used in the commercials. So that was good too. I was glad it happened, and I was glad they’d done it.”

It would be preposterous to think that Bob Dylan would have gladly allowed his music to be commercialized and turned into hit pop charts without any compensation coming back to him, yet Reason seems to imply that this is the case, based solely on the fact that Dylan is happy that others have performed his songs.

Second, while speaking about the songwriting process, Bob Dylan stated “I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.” Reason emphasizes this to suggest that Dylan advocates that anyone should be able to take his prior works for free. However, in doing so, Reason shows a severe misunderstanding of the creative process. Like so many other copyright critics, Reason continues to conflate the taking of a work with being inspired by a work to create something new.

The idea that all creation builds off other creation is not new—in fact, it’s built into copyright law—and Dylan freely acknowledged the source of his inspiration. Yet while Dylan was inspired by the folk standards, his creative output was his own expression. Though Reason chooses to use Dylan’s songwriting as an example of how copyright can chill creativity, the opposite is actually true. For instance, consider Dylan’s description of how “The Times They Are A-Changin’” came to fruition:

“If you sung all these ‘come all ye’ songs all the time, you’d be writing, ‘Come gather ‘round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.’”

Here lies the fundamental distinction between idea and expression, a principle that continues to confound copyright critics. Bob Dylan’s brilliant lyrics came to fruition because (1) he sang and listened to folk songs that came before him; and (2) he was inspired to create something completely new. Rather than hamper this creative process, copyright law allows this process to flourish by ensuring that young artists strive to work within creative boundaries to create something new and beautiful, finding their own unique voice.

Rather than focus on repurposing prior works, copyright critics should think about how the large majority of artists actually create, and how to ensure that these artists can continue to prosper on their creations.

Photo credit: VanOrton/iStock/Thinkstock

get blog updates