What Composers and Copyright Lawyers Can Teach Each Other (Updated Video Embeds)

In January 2010, I gave an unusual presentation at The Vera Project in Seattle, entitled What Composers and Copyright Lawyers Can Teach Each Other. Sponsored by Washington Lawyers for the Arts, it was based on demonstrations I have done with my guitar on music copyright issues for my IP classes. I had been doing these for years when one of my former students, Jennifer Chiang, asked if I’d be interested in doing it for a public audience through WLA. The raw video from the event was kicking around for a year until I was finally able to edit it into a decent form.

The presentation is broken down into three parts here. The audio is a bit distorted and the video is dark in places. But you can get a sense of the thing. Most of all, the presentation demonstrates a theme of this blog–that many important methods of creativity and innovation can’t really be reduced to propositional statements. As I mention in the video, I’ve held off on writing a law review article on these music copyright topics for years because it seemed too hopeless to translate into a text-only format that you can easily see and hear in this demonstration.

  • Part I explores the basics of rock song composition and copyright concepts, concluding with a detailed walk through of the issues in the ZZ Top-Chrysler litigation over the use of a segment of La Grange in a truck ad.
  • Part II demonstrates the evolution of famous blues and rock riffs that arguably form the “heart of the work” for some well-known classic rock songs.
  • Part III wraps up the presentation by showing how parts can be added by different players in the rehearsal space or recording studio, and how that might well affect who will be the “authors” of the underlying composition.


About Sean O'Connor

Sean O’Connor is the Boeing International Professor at the University of Washington School of Law (Seattle). He is also Chair of the Center for Advanced Study and Research on Innovation Policy and Faculty Director of the Cannabis Law &B Policy Project. With a diverse background in music, technology, philosophy, history, business, and law, he specializes in legal issues and strategies for entrepreneurship and the commercialization of innovation in biotechnology, information technology, and new media/digital arts.
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