Music copyright has proven to be a tricky topic in recent years, given how readily available music is at present paired with the ability to take on alleged infringement, both through YouTube and in the courts. (Not that any court case would ever be considered easy.) The exponential growth in copyright cases within music is a matter of some debate and contention; some believe in the absolute ability of creators to protect their work from infringement, while others argue that influence and sampling are simply part of the art form, and that to take those away is to remove the ability for new artists to build upon what others have done, as they have for decades, if not centuries. It’s not an argument that looks to be resolved anytime soon, although one ambitious musician is seeking to short-circuit the issue entirely.
In an effort to put an end to music copyright claims altogether, musician Damien Ruehl, with the aid of programmer Noah Rubin, created an algorithm to compose, well, all of the music, or at least the melodies. As reported in The Independent, Ruehl and Rubin worked together to create the algorithm, which creates 300,000 melodies a second and 68 billion in total, with the aim of then copyrighting those melodies and then releasing them into the public domain.
Ruehl’s argument is that the number of melodies is finite — 68 billion, apparently — and as such, it’s inevitable that copying of another’s work would happen by sheer coincidence; the article cites both the cases of George Harrison and the Chiffons as well as Sam Smith and Tom Petty as instances where similarities were coincidental or subconscious and yet were enough to find guilt in both cases. Certainly it’s an unromantic view of music as simply the mathematical computation of notes in a specific order, rearranged in billions of different ways, and maybe an argument not that far off the “thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters” that would eventually craft the works of Shakespeare.
The article also notes that this novel approach has yet to be tested in court, where it might be met with a pairing of the antipathy reserved for patent trolls and the confusion around works created by artificial intelligence. It’s possible that Ruehl and Rubin’s work holds up, but perhaps more likely that this particular academic exercise is just that: academic, and nothing else.