Brute-Forced Copyrighting: Liberating All The Melodies

Bluntly stated, music is in the end just applied physics. Harmony follows — depending on the genre — a more or less fixed set of rules, and there  are a limited amount of variation possible within the space of music itself. So there are technically only so many melodies possible, making it essentially a question of time until a songwriter or composer would come up with a certain sequence of notes without knowing that they’re not the first one to do so until the cease and desist letters start rolling in.

You might well argue that there is more to a song than just the melody — and you are absolutely right. However, current copyright laws and past court rulings may not care much about that. Aiming to point out these flaws in the laws, musician tech guy with a law degree [Damien Riehl] and musician software developer [Noah Rubin] got together to simply create every possible melody as MIDI files, releasing them under the Creative Commons Zero license. While their current list is limited to a few scales of fixed length, with the code available on GitHub, it’s really just a matter of brute-forcing literally every single possible melody.

Admittedly, such a list of melodies might not have too much practical use, but for [Damien] and [Noah] it’s anyway more about the legal and philosophical aspects: musicians shouldn’t worry about getting sued over a few overlapping notes. So while the list serves as a “safe set of melodies” they put in the public domain, their bigger goal is to mathematically point out the finite space of music that shouldn’t be copyrightable in the first place. And they definitely have a point — just imagine where music would be today if you could copyright and sue over chord progressions.

19 thoughts on “Brute-Forced Copyrighting: Liberating All The Melodies

  1. One has to wonder how long until every music corporation sues them for copyright infringement on every red melody that they have “illegally” published without paying any royalties.

    Like how do they avoid landing on the existing red landmines while brute force creating all the green melodies.

    1. If you independently create a copyrighted work you did nothing wrong. This independent creation is usually hard to prove in court, but in this case it may be simpler by showing the program and that it has no ability to take any input.

  2. While ‘cute’, it probably this does not really mean anything. Courts typically look at the ‘color’ of an object. What that means lets say you and I both make something. It looks, sounds and is basically identical. You copied a previous item and just changed a few things. Yet I did not do that at all and came up with it 100% on my own. You are probably in violation, where as I am not. Music is one of those areas where it is a bit odd as there is so much of it. So some progressions and riffs are re-used easily. Even if you do not mean to. The case which caused this is probably wrong in its answer. So another case could come along and this one means nothing anymore. Judges are usually not very impressed with novel ways to work around the spirit of the law. Which this project does.

    1. I think the idea is that the spirit of the law has already been worked around, this project is aiming to highlight that, to show how ridiculous the law has become.

    2. Is that genuinely how it often plays out in reality, though? Seems a bit naive. I think what you’ve stated is what the courts are hypothetically supposed to do, but I guarantee you that if RIAA or Google or whatever huge moneyed institution caught you in its death star laser it would just scorch you no matter how you created it. In the end it’s just about money and connections and institutional power. I get kind of tired of these simplistic explanations of the law. It’s like lecturing someone on what you can refuse to say to a cop, what your rights are, what they can and can’t do—in the end, if they wanna falsify probably cause and railroad you, throw you in jail with trumped-up “contempt of cop” charges, they can and will and they will face zero consequences unless you have resources to fight. Significant resources. It’s pay-to-play and always has been. So yeah, I’m betting that if any big group actually cares about this stunt and decides to sue this guy he’s going straight down.

    1. There was a scifi short story decades ago that accurately described this problem. IIRC, it ended with the passing of laws that gave songwriters a fixed copyright term of ten years, after which the notes and lyrics could be reused.

    2. I think the ultimate conclusion is that we should come up with a better solution to replace the entire concept of intellectual property. It’s fundamentally opposed to how human thought functions. No ideas exist which aren’t composed of concepts taken from elsewhere. There are no ideas in a vacuum. Perfect and total IP enforcement would mean the abrupt cessation of thought and innovation. It’s stupid.

      And it doesn’t even really benefit inventors like one prosaically imagines when they think of a man in a garage tinkering with some patent-pending machine; that virtually never happens. It’s such a rarity now. In reality, individuals almost never own their own IP. It gets snapped up by some speculative hoarder. Not even just with patent trolls. Virtually all IP is held as assets by giant entities that basically just hoard IP and charge rent on it. It’s a poisonous concept. If we’re ever able, we should abolish all IP and figure out some other way. It doesn’t even guarantee the prosperity of or motivate the actual innovators. That’s a smoke screen to justify useless, psychopathic hoarding. It slows progress instead of spurring it. It makes inventors poorer rather than richer. Obviously there needs to be some system, but not this one.

      1. Always nice to hear from Bernie Sanders. It sounds like you’re not familiar with the concept of “prior art”. So now we’ve got “Big Oil”, “Big Pharma” and “Giant Entities”?

        PCR? One guy originally, Karry Mullis.
        Transistor?
        US 1745175 Julius Edgar Lilienfeld: “Method and apparatus for controlling electric current” first filed in Canada on 22.10.1925, describing a field-effect transistor
        US 1900018 Julius Edgar Lilienfeld: “Device for controlling electric current” filed on 28.03.1928, a thin film field-effect transistor
        GB 439457 Oskar Heil: “Improvements in or relating to electrical amplifiers and other control arrangements and devices” first filed in Germany on 02.03.1934
        US 2524035 John Bardeen et al.: “Three-electrode circuit element utilizing semiconductive materials” oldest priority 26.02.1948
        US 2569347 William Shockley: “Circuit element utilizing semiconductive material” oldest priority 26.06.1948
        US 3206670 Mohamed Atalla: “Semiconductor devices having dielectric coatings” filed in 03.08.1960, describing a MOSFET
        US 3102230 Dawon Kahng: “Electric field controlled semiconductor device” filed in 03.08.1960, describing a MOSFET

        “Giant entities” my Aunt Fanny!

  3. This doesn’t change the fact that Led Zeppelin stole from Spirit and Willie Dixon definitely on purpose and George Harrison stole from Ronnie Mack, probably accidentally.

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