Copyright Question: Does David Bowie Get The Copyright On Computer Generated Lyrics?
from the have-fun-with-this-one,-law-profs dept
There have been a number of copyright-related discussions spurred by the unfortunate passing of David Bowie, but here’s one more that might make for an interesting law school exam. Matthew Braga, over at Vice’s Motherboard, has a really wonderful story about how Bowie used a lyric writing word randomizer app called Verbasizer in writing his album Outside in the mid-1990s. He includes this clip from a documentary about it:
Roberts described Bowie as taking multiple word sources, from the newspaper to hand-written words, cutting them up, throwing them into a hat and then arranging the fragments on pieces of paper. He’d then cross out material that didn’t fit to create lines of lyrics.
Roberts suggested he could create software for Bowie to speed up the process and did so for use on a Mac laptop. The app was called the Verbasizer and you can see it in use by Bowie in the video above in which he refers to a “friend” aka Ty Roberts. It allowed for different input methods including simply typing in words and then arranged them in columns which could be restricted to nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Each column could be weighted and have multiple words if desired. With a push of a button lyrics would then be created.
The Verbasizer was used in the creation of “Outside” which employed additional creative techniques for bypassing one’s usual methods of artmaking that fall into patterns that are otherwise difficult to avoid. Roberts had the unique experience of observing Bowie’s working methods as he went from the computer to the mic with new material sometimes in just a minute.
That’s kind of cool… but it leads to a bit of a copyright question. We’ve already been discussing how copyright doesn’t apply to works created by animals, but a much bigger fight concerns whether or not it applies to works created by computers. The official answer is no — as with the monkey situation, copyright requires a human author. But given the rise in computer-generated content — text, music, videos and more — it’s one that is going to show up in court.
So, then, are Bowie’s lyrics copyrightable at all? It’s not clear that enough is really known to make that call entirely. On the “yes, copyrightable” side of the argument, you can claim that Bowie likely fed in the original texts used for the cut ups, giving some element of human authorship. And, also, he was responsible for finally choosing which algorithmicly generated lyrics to actually use. Finally, in at least some interviews, Bowie admits that the cut up technique was often most useful in inspiring him, rather than necessarily giving him the final lyrics. That’s probably enough to say he has the copyright on those lyrics. But, at the very least, it does seem open to someone challenging that. And these issues are only going to become a bigger issue as more and more works are generated by computers, with less and less human input at all. And, once again, Bowie appears to have been on the cutting edge…