Dylan: What's Yours Is Mine, And What's Mine Is Mine, Too

from the privatizing-the-commons dept

We've pointed out many times before the absolute hypocrisy of those who constantly build on the works of others, but go ballistic should anyone seek to build on their works. Where it gets really ridiculous is when people insist that, if you don't like things like this, you should "create your own." Often they'll point to the works of famous musicians as examples of people who "made their own." For example, a year ago, we wrote about a music industry lawyer who insisted that folks like Bob Dylan would avoid the music industry altogether, if it weren't for the protections afforded under the old system. So, it's quite interesting to see this piece in the Irish Times that points out that Bob Dylan had a nasty habit of copying from everyone else, but threatening anyone who tried to build on his own works:
This was very much the state of folk song when Dylan came on the scene. It occupied an ambivalent terrain between originality (and therefore private ownership) and collective tradition (and thus common possession). Dylan ruthlessly exploited this ambiguity. He treated everybody else's folk songs as a common storehouse he could raid at will. He didn't just filch songs from other people's repertoires; he stole their arrangements. (As late as 1992, he lifted Nic Jones's arrangement of Canadee-I-O, wholesale and without acknowledgment.) He did this on both sides of the Atlantic. The great Martin Carthy, who has also just turned 70, taught him Scarborough Fair, which Dylan then recycled as Girl from the North Country.

But he treated his own songs as private property: what's yours is mine and what's mine is my own. The assertion of his individualism involved in "going electric" was in part a way of defining Dylan entirely as an individual artist and therefore as the sole owner of his own songs.

We can say now that Dylan's ruthlessness was that of any genius and that his exploitation of these ambiguities was justified by what he produced from them. But it's hard to blame people for not seeing it quite that way at the time. Dylan was doing something significant in the history not just of modern culture but of modern capitalism. He was fencing in what had been common land, establishing property rights over a collective heritage. He wasn't alone in this and it was part of a much bigger process. But those who yelped in pain were not entirely contemptible.
While I have issues with the use of "stole" to describe Dylan's actions, this sort of story is pretty common. Artists who are often held up as being "original" have frequently copied from those who came before, quite freely. And that's a good thing. I'm wondering if those who run to our comments to declare "make your own!" will also complain about Dylan "profiting off the works of others," or if they'll be blinded by the (worthwhile) cultural establishment of Dylan, and come up with excuses for why his use of others' works was okay...


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  1.  
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    The eejit (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 9:10am

    Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

     

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  2.  
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    Pickle Monger (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 9:19am

    More borrowing

    In his last album (or the one before last) he had a song Someday Baby which was prominently re-written/modified/rearranged/covered by Muddy Waters, Mig Maceo, Sleepy Estes, R.L. Burnside, Allman Brothers, etc. IIRC it was referred to as an original song at the Grammies...

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 9:36am

    I'd have no problem with the use of "stole" when it relates to somebody taking stuff that doesn't belong to them and either preventing other people using it or charging other people for using it.

    It is after all the principle reason that "stealing" is an utterly inappropriate and inaccurate term for copyright infringement as the infringement whether someone considers it to be evil or noble does not deny the use of the item infringed to anyone else and does not require anyone else to pay for the use of the infringed material either.

    It's not so much all property is theft, but all public property fenced off and reopened only to those willing and able to pay for access to land that is theirs is fraud and fraud is a variation on theft.

     

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  4.  
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    David Kindler, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 9:47am

    In his words

    In Bob's own words (unless he lifted them from some other Irishman), "steal a little and you go to jail, steal a lot and they make you king."

    I guess he followed his own advice.

     

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  5.  
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    Spaceman Spiff (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 9:53am

    All musicians steal

    and borrow. I was just listening to a 1940 recording of Woodie Guthrie (Library of Congress Recordings) in my car, with him singing a song he had written just that morning, "Chain Around My Leg". The melody was identical to "Good Night Irene" written by Lead Belly in 1932. Should that little detail detract from Guthrie's work? I don't see where the LOC or Rounder Records (the publisher) makes any attribution to Lead Belly for that song on the album (disc 2 of Woodie Guthrie Library of Congress Recordings - Rounder Records - 1992). :rolleyes:

     

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  6.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 9:57am

    I've got over 10,000 records and listen to music pretty much constantly on a daily basis. There is no such thing as originality, those that think any creation is wholly original are simply uninformed of the inspirations of that artist. I've discussed this same topic with several artists, of the fine arts and music variety and it's a fairly open secret that everyone borrows, everyone steals. Even Isaac Newton, 'stood on the shoulders of giants' to reach his theories. That's simply how it's done. Those that deny it, are simply lying.

     

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    Someantimalwareguy, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 10:22am

    Re: Good artists borrow...

    As a former armature and then semi-professional musician in my youth, I can atest to the fact that there is nothing new in music. All artists build off the work of others whether it be transparent or not.

    How can anyone realistically CR content when there is simply a limited range of possible notes and arrangement of those notes?

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 10:34am

    Re:

    However, to only repeat the work of the giants and claim it as your own would be a major failing. Music is all about influence, but it is also all about creativity and originality. No two musicians play music exactly the same way unless they strive to be the same. Otherwise, they all have style differences.

    However, playing a song someone else has written does not make you the writer or creator of the song, just a musician playing someone else's work. The difference is both subtle and enormous. Writing a new blues song means by definition that you will borrow a basic structure (cord progressions, example, but it doesn't stop you from creating a totally new work.

    All wood frame houses are build from the same 2x4 pieces of wood. That doesn't stop them from being unique in their construction. If you only look at the 2x4 wood, you can think they are the same. It is a misdirection to look only at the wood, however, because you would miss the actual product.

     

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    Mike42 (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 10:43am

    I'm wondering if those who run to our comments to declare "make your own!" will also complain about Dylan "profiting off the works of others," or if they'll be blinded by the (worthwhile) cultural establishment of Dylan, and come up with excuses for why his use of others' works was okay...

    Actually, I find that most of these people are blinded by the amount of money that these artists make, rather than cultural establishment, i.e. "look how great Lady Gaga is! She made 20 million last year alone! Are you gonna argue with that?"

     

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    Ima Fish (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 11:04am

    So Dylan is basically the Disney of folk music. That makes so much sense.

     

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  11.  
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    barrywolk (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 11:04am

    When you steal from one personís work itís called: Plagiarism...

    When you steal from the works of many people itís called: Research!!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 11:09am

    Re: Re:

    "just a musician playing someone else's work."

    Just? :(

     

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  13.  
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    Huph, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 11:24am

    Re:

    Wouldn't you have to admit that there's an individual bit of expression involved in choosing how to combine the things you're inspired by? Is there an individual expression that becomes apparent through the selection of what to take from where and what to combine it with? I would say so.

    Would the same individual expression somehow emerge if you only copied one song?

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 11:27am

    Re:

    heard she lost 3 million

     

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  15.  
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    Huph, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 11:38am

    I'm wondering if those who run to our comments to declare "make your own!" will also complain about Dylan "profiting off the works of others," or if they'll be blinded by the (worthwhile) cultural establishment of Dylan, and come up with excuses for why his use of others' works was okay...


    I don't follow what you're trying to say here. Are you claiming that it wasn't OK for Dylan to use other people's work without permission or attribution or paying a license? That would be kind of funny to hear, because you know what would have made sure those original artists would have inherited some of the value of their work? Copyright protection. I doubt that's what you mean to imply.

    Or are you saying that it's totally cool that Dylan ripped the works of so many others without paying due respect? Because in the copyright-minimal world proposed at this site and other like-minded places, what you would end up with is world full of "Dylans" ripping the work of actual creators. These "Dylans" could reach the size of record labels.

    We already have proof that this would happen. See: the career of Bob Dylan. Everything he did was legal, and still is actually, since in almost every case he added his own original individual expression (the lyrics). But the world contemplated at this site wouldn't even require that.

    So like I said, I'm not sure what you're proposing here, beyond trying to point out the inferior intellect of people who might somehow, in this day and age, be unaware that Dylan appropriated his entire career from the folk music tradition (which it should be pointed out, was and still is totally legal. Folk chord progressions are free for anyone to use and put their words to, even Dylan's. See Springstein, Lennon, DiFranco, all the modern "freak folk" bands). I'd say that if anything, a post like this highlights the need to protect the interests of creators from cultural aggregators like Bob Dylan. That's not necessarily what I think, but I'm just trying to figure out the point of trying to make fun of those who disagree with the TD party line.

    Maybe I'm missing the point. I wasn't aware that anybody considered Dylan original in a musical sense (that would precisely rub against the whole point of the folk music tradition). It was his status as a poet that seems to matter to people. In that sense, he was fairly original.

     

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  16.  
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    A Dan (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 11:46am

    Re:

    Exactly. I would call this stealing as well. He directly deprives people of what he's taking.

     

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  17.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 12:03pm

    Re:

    Folk chord progressions are free for anyone to use and put their words to, even Dylan's.

    That's complete bunk. "Folk" is not a word with any legal significance. Copyright laws still apply based on the same factors that make them apply anywhere else. For example, "Happy Birthday" is commonly called a folk song, but it is still under copyright. Same thing with the "Kookaburra" fiasco in Australia.

    Now, there are indeed certain chord progressions that have been in use for so long that they are public domain, but it has nothing to do with them being "folk" - they are subject to the exact same laws as any other music.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 12:09pm

    Re: Re:

    I hope they make collage illegal in the future. Serve those stealing artists right.

     

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  19.  
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    Tom The Toe, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 12:16pm

    Dylan, style or plagerism

    "The Levee's Gonna Break" is based on "When the Levee Breaks" by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. It has been previously adapted by rock acts such as Led Zeppelin. The song has also been in the public domain since 2004. But when Bob Dylan performed it for his cd Modern Times in 2006 he credited no one but himself as the song writer. I guess he thinks since it is public domain he can just slap his name on it and now it's his.

     

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  20.  
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    Andrew (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 12:28pm

    Re:

    Yeah, I think you're missing the point. Like many others on here, the post highlights the hypocrisy of many who subscribe to the traditional Big Content view of the world: that it's OK for them to use others' work in their own creations, but it's not OK for others to use their work in turn.

    The thing is, Dylan didn't just rip off other people, he transformed and reinterpreted the music, added his own lyrics, etc. - and this adds value. This makes his offering unique and valuable to many people. And, by being inspired and building on others' music, Dylan was able to create a body of work far superior to that which he could have done as an "actual creator". (Taking this to its logical conclusion, would he have to invent his own instruments, musical notation and language to qualify as a real "original artist"?)

    Like everyone else, he stood on the shoulders of all those who went before him, and his work was much better for it - this is progress. The point here is not to highlight a false dichotomy between "actual creators" and "cultural aggregators like Bob Dylan"; the point is that every creator is an aggregator, and that their creations - with their own unique transformations and additions - are much better for it.

     

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  21.  
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    Tom The Toe, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 1:26pm

    Re:Re:

    But it wouldn't kill him to give credit where credit is due. When Led Zep covered When The Levee Breaks They gave credit to the original writers and also to themselves for the additional lyrics and music.Dylan "stood on the shoulders of all those who went before him," but while he was doing that he was also kicking them in the head screaming "it's mine it's all mine."

     

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  22.  
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    Overcast (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 1:37pm

    And the sign says you got to pay some cash to have a listen...

     

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  23.  
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    Overcast (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 1:40pm

    What gives him the right to put up a paywall and to keep other people out? If God was here, he'd tell it to his face, man you're some kind of corporate goon..


    lol

     

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  24.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 2:15pm

    Re:

    I don't follow what you're trying to say here.

    Really? I tried to be pretty explicit.

    Are you claiming that it wasn't OK for Dylan to use other people's work without permission or attribution or paying a license? That would be kind of funny to hear, because you know what would have made sure those original artists would have inherited some of the value of their work? Copyright protection. I doubt that's what you mean to imply.

    Yes, I think it's perfectly fine that Dylan built off the works of others, because that's how culture is made.

    Or are you saying that it's totally cool that Dylan ripped the works of so many others without paying due respect? Because in the copyright-minimal world proposed at this site and other like-minded places, what you would end up with is world full of "Dylans" ripping the work of actual creators. These "Dylans" could reach the size of record labels.


    You seem to be confusing "copyright" with "credit." The two are separate and you should avoid mixing them up.

    Yes, I have no problem with people building on the works of others. I think that it's *the right thing to do* to give credit where it's due, but I don't think it should be required under the law.

    The point of the article -- which you seem to have totally missed -- was the blatant hypocrisy of someone like Dylan copying others without allowing others to copy him. And, on top of that, the blatant hypocrisy of people who hold up Dylan as some great example of creating something "new" when he also built on the works of others -- something he now denies to future creators.

     

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  25.  
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    Gwiz (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 2:20pm

    The assertion of his individualism involved in "going electric" was in part a way of defining Dylan entirely as an individual artist.....

    Huh. And I always thought his drunken off-key rambling vocalizations was what defined him as an individual artist.

     

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  26.  
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    Joe Publius (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 2:24pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    I agree, Just?

    Somewhere, YoYo Ma is crying.

     

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  27.  
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    Mike42 (profile), Jun 1st, 2011 @ 3:00pm

    Re: Re:

    As my Grandma used to say, "Nobody likes a smartass!". :)

     

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  28.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 3:13pm

    Bob Dylan can't sing for crap. He survives on hype.

     

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  29.  
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    Mr Big Content, Jun 1st, 2011 @ 3:52pm

    This Just Proves Why Intellectual Property Is So Important

    Once an artist is established as original, it helps them stay original.

     

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  30.  
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    ric berlin, Jun 2nd, 2011 @ 6:51am

    Re: More borrowing

    "Referred to" by whom?

     

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  31.  
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    diana, Jun 2nd, 2011 @ 8:59am

    depriving?

    Or- looking at it differently one might see him as exposing others to the beauty and richness of the past, the historical significance of folk, blues, roots music rather than depriving anyone. Who is being deprived when the structures/melodies he has adapted were not under copyright law?
    In a time when modern rock and pop music has become merely a banal"product" and bereft of anything approaching art- (with some exceptions of course)I'm certainly grateful to dylan for exposing me/us to so much of the bedrock of American music as well as the genuine "folk" melodies from around the world that so much of the early folk/rock/blues was built on.
    I'm just as grateful to him for bringing exposure to literature as well.
    There is a discipline, called "literary allusion" used by writers since the beginning- inspired by, building on or referencing the work and ideas of others. This discipline is studied in Universities and countless books have been published by both academics and "laymen" identifying and chronicling this art form.

    And now Dylan is being studied the same way.
    Deservedly so.

     

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  32.  
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    diana, Jun 2nd, 2011 @ 9:08am

    Re: Re: Re:

    ha!
    very good.
    irony(?) worthy of Bob.

     

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  33.  
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    5d, Jun 2nd, 2011 @ 9:40am

    razman the thief

    dylan shekels is a thief like most jews in that business. they stole from blacks and others and affixed their names.

     

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  34.  
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    Jeff Rife, Jun 2nd, 2011 @ 11:40am

    Or, as Tom Lehrer said...

    I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky.
    In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics:
    Plagiarize!

    Plagiarize,
    Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
    Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
    So don't shade your eyes,
    But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize--
    Only be sure always to call it please "research".

     

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  35.  
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    charliebrown (profile), Jun 2nd, 2011 @ 1:27pm

    The House Of The Sinking Credibility

    There is a house in New Orleans
    They call 'The Rising Sun'
    And it's been the ruin of many a young poor boy
    And God, I know, I'm one
    ~~~Bob Dylan (1962)...er, I mean Eric Burdon (1964)....umm Leadbelly (1948)... er 'Texas' Alexander (1928)....maybe....

     

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  36.  
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    clivejw, Jun 2nd, 2011 @ 8:49pm

    Dylan didn't nick Nic's arrangement of Canada-i-o

    ...as you'd know if you'd researched the subject yourself instead of copying opinions off the Internet. Ironic, considering your general argument.

    Fact is that Dylan couldn't play Nic's brilliant, very sophisticated, fingerpicking arrangement if he tried. He doesn't try, using a fairly standard Dylanesque strumming arrangement instead. Nic's version is in an open tuning, Dylan's is in standard tuning. The singing style is also different, with Nic mostly hanging behind the beat and Dylan singing with the beat. Both are memorable interpretations, and they are quite different.

     

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