Would The Beggars' Opera Be Possible Today?

from the doing-the-math dept

Mockingbird writes "John Gay’s 1728 musical comedy The Beggar’s Opera made use of 69 popular melodies, none of which was written by Gay or by his musical editor Johann Christoph Pepusch. I’ve attempted a back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine whether Gay could have produced his play had today’s long copyright terms been in force in 1728. Conclusion: It depends, but the clearance fees would likely not have been trivial under reasonable assumptions."

Of course, I’m sure the usual folks will show up in the comments insisting that if he couldn’t write all the music himself, it wasn’t worth making.

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Comments on “Would The Beggars' Opera Be Possible Today?”

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BobinBaltimore (profile) says:

You got the department wrong

Mike, your departments are often witty or pointed. In this case, I think you got it wrong. The correct department is “Another-It-Doesn’t-Matter-Subjective-Invention.” I get your point (and the author’s) and agree that if the law extant 275 years later were in place then, it might not have been written or written as it was. That said, there are PLENTY of examples – look at the current off-broadway show Rock of Ages – that do something similar (in a modern way) and properly license everything they need. Shows which use collections of songs are not unusual and some have been wildly successful (Jersey Boys, for example, or just about any Vegas-style revue). I understand it’s a mixed metaphor in that the modern shows use the whole music and lyrics (or music with parody lyrics), licensed (presumably) from the rights holders. But that’s the way things have been done for the last 100+ years. 275 years ago, things we different, and it was okay and legal for then. Guess what? 50 or 100 years from now (or maybe just 5, 10 or 25 years), the customs and legalities will be different still!

Mockingbird (profile) says:

Re: You got the department wrong

BibinBaltimore, I agree that things were very different in 1728, but that’s part of the point. The 69 tunes in the Beggars’ Opera outnumber those of many of our modern jukebox-musicals by 2-to-1 or more. Yet Gay was able to (1) use all 69 of the tunes he wanted, which were popular standards of the time, and (2) write new words to all of them. To all appearances, he had full creative freedom. Copyright, by contrast, creates a frictional force against many types of creativity. For example, the Def Leppard song “Rock of Ages” is not in the set list for the play “Rock of Ages”, apparently because Deff Leppard denied permission. And this lawyer notes that

I’ve been brought in to help with more than one musical where songs have had to be ?pulled” and replaced because of license expirations, or ?holdback” provisions imposed by publishers. Obviously, changing a show mid-run can be a hair raising adventure, and may disappoint audiences and critics.

It is true that there is an important cultural difference between Gay’s time and ours. The popular airs Gay used were melodic formulas that were commonly used with more than one set of words. In our time, when a new set of words is set to an existing contemporary tune, it is often for comic effect, as in the work of “Wierd Al” Yankovic. I’m not aware that it is often done seriously with contemporary tunes. Maybe someone should try it in a serious way. But maybe, someone who tried wouldn’t get permission.

Enrico Suarve says:

Re: Re: You got the department wrong

There’s something seriously wrong with a system that allows Wierd Al but prohibits actual musical creation

Perhaps thats the solution – any performer wanting to use other performers works at all just needs to state they are a comedian rather than a singer “you don’t get the joke? not my fault – I never said I was a GOOD comedian”

Name Me This or That Or Whatever says:

“I’m sure the usual folks will show up in the comments insisting that if he couldn’t write all the music himself, it wasn’t worth making.”

It’s always worth making – it’s just a question of is anyone willing to pay? Basically, he could pay the fees required and have a nice day, or he could not and get nowhere.

It all depends. If he could get $400 a seat and sell lots of t-shirts, well, who knows? It could be a profitable enterprise.

Nate (profile) says:

longest running Broadway play

you know we might never have heard Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” if he hadn’t borrowed that melody from Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”

but isn’t taking a melody and incorporating it into a larger work with a stage production, acting and i’m sure some amount of original musical input make it a transformative use of the music?

sounds like fair use to me, we’re talking melody lines not entire songs getting ripped right?

Anonymous Coward says:

In order to put it in the correct perspective...

The author needs to place the play in its historical perspective. Beggar’s Opera is the direct ancestor of the modern musical production. John Gay is the first to have integrated the music into the story and to have it sung by the characters rather than ave them as separate interludes performed by separate performers. So this is important because it demonstrates innovation without p[rotection

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