Piano Instructor Claims Copyright On Writing Letters On Piano Keys

from the expression-of-a-bad-idea dept

With the general public not being heavily invested in the nuances of copyright, you expect mistakes to be made, but the idea/expression dichotomy is fairly central to the entire copyright endeavor. Given that, I have come to expect anyone who throws around legal threats and/or DMCA notices to at least know what the hell they’re talking about. I don’t think it’s too much to ask someone, who can potentially erase the work of others, to use that power judiciously, yet problems persist. For example, there was the time when two major networks butted heads over the basic concepts of reality television. And it stands to reason that if two major broadcast entities with gobs of lawyers chomping at the proverbial bit can’t get the basics right, then you can expect similar problems with individuals.

Serving as an example, we have Shawn Cheek, YouTube piano teacher, who has claimed copyright on a teaching method consisting of writing out the letters for notes on their associated piano keys. Beyond just his laughably annoying claim, he’s apparently been going on the offensive against other YouTube piano teachers.

He has apparently convinced Mark de Heide, the 23-year-old creator of PGN Piano lessons, to take down all of his videos that display the letters of notes above the keyboard (e.g. a visual display of “C, D, E, C,” for frere jacques). Mark took the bait, and stated in a video he’s removed all of his YouTube lesson videos that contain the fundamental piano practice technique. He also worried about YouTube taking action over the lessons he recording [sic] teaching pop hits.

It’s bad enough when legitimate copyrights are used to hinder broad instructional methods and information, but when the claim is blatantly one that cannot be copyrighted, it’s down right infuriating. Cheek is reported to have a series of DVDs using this “innovative,” write-stuff-on-the-keys method — and those DVDs, i.e. the actual expression, certainly can be copyrighted, but the teaching method is an idea. It can’t be copyrighted. Yet now, thanks to the aggressive ownership culture that has resulted from a reaching and complex copyright law, all of de Heide’s videos have been removed. He isn’t even challenging their removal. Why? Well, because he doesn’t really know how copyright works either, but he does know that he’s afraid of the legal repercussions that might result. Those videos, by the way, had millions of views and were quite popular. It’s very likely that de Heide was making his living in part from those videos.

The only encouraging part of this story is the YouTube comments to de Heide, in which commenters actually displayed a decent knowledge of the idea/expression dichotomy. For instance, one user stated:

“What Shawn has protected is the recordings of his performance (in other words the recordings of Shawn instructing people how to play songs in his DVDS and etc.). You would infringe his copyright by making, copying, uploading, distributing, or many [sic] available copies of his recordings to the public without his permission. I recommend you discuss the following discussion points with your lawyer.”

If the ultimate result of aggressive and misused intellectual property laws is a better informed public that not only knows the law, but also can recognize its intrinsic abuses, then so much the better. Until that pivotal point is reached, however, we’ll have to hear about piano teachers not being able to write letters on keys.

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Comments on “Piano Instructor Claims Copyright On Writing Letters On Piano Keys”

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54 Comments
fogbugzd (profile) says:

I took piano lessons back in the late 1950’s. Letters were written on the keys. Is there a piano teacher or student anywhere who has not at least considered the idea?

Yet apparently our marvelous DCMA system coupled with horendous YouTube policies that are quick to label accounts an infringing allows anyone to claim ownership of almost anything on YouTube

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yet apparently our marvelous DCMA system
coupled with horendous YouTube policies
that are quick to label accounts an infringing
allows anyone to claim ownership of almost
anything on YouTube

If anything, I’m surprised it’s not abused more often.

Judging by the comments on just about every single video that allows them, you literally can’t put up anything on YouTube without pissing someone off somehow.

Richard (profile) says:

Beyond ridiculous.

This is beyond ridiculous.
1. Copyright does not cover “teaching methods” in any jurisdiction of which I am aware.
Look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright#Scope if you don’t beleive me.
2. Such things couold perhaps be covered by a patent – but that is entirely different. It would require an actual patent to have been issued. If this guy had one he would surely have quoted it by number.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Then how come I don’t have government made of people with rational plans for minimal government that supplies essential services and infrastructure while allowing private industry to compete to provide the best value for non-essential services.

I can assure you I didn’t vote for any of the clowns currently spending my tax dollars.

out_of_the_blue says:

Holy cow! Timmy actually has it right!

It’s ALL about “aggressive and misused intellectual property laws”, NOT the laws as such! We need to get bad actors under control — and that especially means limit income for those at truly obscene levels from minor efforts, whether corporate fat cats, manufactured rock stars like Britney Spears, or mediocrities like Tom Cruise. Above a certain level, steeply progressive income taxes should remove money as a literally insanity-producing incentive, and we’ll all be better off.

[Better than your usual writing in this, Timmy, BUT I’d at least change: “With the general public not being heavily invested in the nuances of copyright, you expect mistakes to be made, but” to “While the general public may not know every nuance of copyright,” And remove “chomping at the proverbial bit”, especially “proverbial”, simply archaic verbiage, likely readers have no idea what it refers to. If you want to use a metaphor, invent something to do with computers, like “tapping the mouse key ready to click”. — But for purposes of edumacation here, I retain copyright to that phrase!]

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Holy cow! Timmy actually has it right!

I wouldn’t remove “proverbial” because it’s archaic… I’d remove it because it’s incorrect. Unless there’s some proverb regarding horses chomping at bits that I’m not aware of. He could have said “metaphorical bit”, but why bother? It’s not like people aren’t going to recognize that it’s a metaphor.

As for the copyright claim… yeah, it’s ridiculous. You cannot copyright anything which is primarily functional, such as accurate labels on piano keys (this is the reason why most clothing is not eligible for copyright.) And I’d be willing to bet that labels have only been done before, but they’ve been done so long ago that any copyrights, if they ever existed, have long since expired. Perhaps he could have copyrighted a particular STYLE of labeling, but it would have to be awfully creative to qualify, and also would pretty much have to be copied exactly to have been infringed.

“Above a certain level, steeply progressive income taxes should remove money as a literally insanity-producing incentive, and we’ll all be better off.”

I don’t think that would help in this particular case. I doubt that either piano teacher is making obscene amounts of money.

cpt kangarooski says:

Re: Holy cow! Timmy actually has it right!

It’s ALL about “aggressive and misused intellectual property laws”, NOT the laws as such!

No, the laws are still bad. First, they enable bad actors who engage in abuse. Second, they chill otherwise unobjectionable uses, such as in the case of orphan works. Paring down the laws to a reasonable level would be good all around.

But feel free to raise income taxes at high brackets, impose wealth taxes, etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Serving as an example, we have Shawn Cheek, YouTube piano teacher, who has claimed copyright on a teaching method consisting of writing out the letters for notes on their associated piano keys.”

This is the kind of legal threat that is best addressed by responding with a form letter bearing the following legalese:

[YOUR NAME]
[YOUR ADDRESS]

Dear [Attorney / Bloodsucker]:

Fuck off.

Very Truly Yours,
[Your Name]

cc: Somebody who gives a damn.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I have to disagree…

The famous reply in Arkell v. Pressdram (1971) [unreported] which is quoted by all solicitors in the UK and other commonwealth countries – in the USA it can even be used as well though Ken White’s from Popehat “snort my taint” phrase is sometimes better ๐Ÿ˜‰

Therefore:

[YOUR NAME]
[YOUR ADDRESS]

Sir/s,

I refer you to the reply given in Arkell and Pressdram.

Yours [Your Name]

Is the best legal response to anything like this

๐Ÿ™‚

Anonymous Coward says:

Pretty bizarre case. Sean creek claims that this was not letters on keys but fails to clarify what it was being infringed.. Both teachers refuse to call each other out by name. Now they’ve reached some an ‘agreement’. No details provided. Mark now claims his business is destroyed and that he has to move to a different house. Nothing is clear here.

Anonymous Coward says:

‘when the claim is blatantly one that cannot be copyrighted, it’s down right infuriating’

what is even more infuriating is the fact that those that can correct this abuse know all about it and still refuse to do anything, mainly because they would lose the backhand payments they are getting from the entertainment industries. how pathetic is that? having a government made up of bribed politicians! must be somewhere east of the EU, surely! best try somewhere a damn sight closer than that!!

shawncheek (profile) says:

The Lie About Me

The issue was not using letters to teach piano lessons, it was the fact that 60 of my personal arrangements and transcriptions were plagiarized, including my commentary during my lessons. It was less embarrassing for Mark to tell everyone that I had copyrighted using letters than to tell his audience the whole truth, and I understand why he did that. Now that he is not copying my arrangements and lesson content, I hope that we can both continue with our youtube channels peacefully.

patg says:

Piano Instructor Claims Copyright On Writing Letters On Piano Keys

I seem to recall having arrived at this idea out of necessity back around 1982 when learning to control an analogue synthesizer via the usual chromatic keyboard provided as controller device. This f***ing fool thinks he’s got a monopoly on the concept? If someone else does not want to kick his backside down the nearest asphalt stretch to dissuade him, please advise and I will volunteer.

patg says:

Piano Instructor Claims Copyright On Writing Letters On Piano Keys

I seem to recall having arrived at this idea out of necessity back around 1982 when learning to control an analogue synthesizer via the usual chromatic keyboard provided as controller device. This f***ing fool thinks he’s got a monopoly on the concept? If someone else does not want to kick his backside down the nearest asphalt stretch to dissuade him, please advise and I will volunteer.

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