Copyright Law Used To Harm Artist. Again

Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) perc...
Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) perched on a Silver Wattle (Acacia dealbata), Waterworks Reserve, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s an advert on TV from Colman’s the English mustard people for their instant beef gravy. It features a dancing bull. Made out of gravy. Dancing. All over the table. To I Like The Way (You Move). Semi-translucent. Gelatinous. Gravy.

It makes me want to vomit. And not want to vomit, for fear that what came out would dance.

By a weird series of associations I’m reminded of Land Down Under, the other other Australian national anthem. Remember the flute solo on that? The guy who played it was found dead yesterday. Greg Ham.

Did you hear he was sued for that solo? By the holders of the copyright to the famous Australian campfire song Kookaburra. It was a great source of sadness to him apparently, and coming so soon before his death – an appeal was dismissed just a year ago – you wonder if there wasn’t a connection.

I’m terribly disappointed that that’s the way I’m going to be remembered – for copying something.

Of course, it’s not copying. If you know both tunes – and you probably do – you can certainly hear a similarity. But not an imitation, something a lot more subtle than that. It’s a musical allusion, a vital part of how composition works. One tune has its associations. Another alludes to it, subtly weaving those associations into its melody. Poetry often does something similar. It is not theft, but art.

The composer of Kookaburra doesn’t appear to have thought she was being ripped off. But after her death, and thirty years after Land Down Under was a hit, her publishing company realised there was some free money to be made. In doing so it was they who committed theft. Their license to cheerfully exploit other people’s creativity enabled them to rob a talented musician of five per cent of the proceeds of his most successful recording. But far worse, they stole his reputation.

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