Who owns music? The ‘Men at Work’ case

The Australian Federal Court ruling in favour of Larrikin Records has raised again the issue of ‘Intellectual Property Rights’. For overseas readers, the case concerns the borrowing or adaptation (or ‘sampling’ to use a hip-hop term) of an old riff, written in 1930, from a song about a kookaburra, adapted by the Australian band, Men at Work, in their international hit, ‘Down Under’. The author of the kookaburra song died in 1988 and the song was purchased by Larrikin Records after her death. Men at Work had a hit with ‘Down Under’ in 1981/82.

There’s a lot of discussion happening about this ruling, and public opinion is generally favourable to Men at Work and against the Court ruling.

People understand that music – and culture in general – does not develop in isolation. As Helen Razer put it in today’s (February 6th) ‘Age’ newspaper: “The history and the advancement of all artistic endeavour rests on borrowing; on using and changing leitmotifs”. I’d add that there’s more to it than that (for example, there are the revolutionary leaps, the breaking of the rules of musicality and rejection of tradition as found in Thelonious Monk’s dissonant harmonies), but it’s a valid observation in terms of the Court ruling.

The point that none of the commentators has made, as far as I’m aware, is the question of a social system based on private property. The singular focus is on how to improve the law, make it more in keeping with the times (when new technologies have made ‘sampling’ commonplace).

The law should certainly be reformed – but what does this case say about private ownership of culture, of music, and what does it suggest about the alternative, social ownership as the basis for production?

A common argument for capitalist property relations is that they favour individual creativity, that culture is experimental and flourishes under them. Yet how true is this when a riff, in music, can be owned privately (by a company – one, incidentally, that had its origins in the ‘left’ nationalist folk scene)?

Where music has developed, progressed, under capitalism it has tended to be in spite of the system of private ownership. The development of rock music, and all the 1960s pop rock bands (for example), owes more to the fact that the shuffle of Bo Diddley and the riffs of Chuck Berry were never patented. Had they been, the countless great bands, including the Beatles and Rolling Stones, would have been up on ‘theft’ and crushed from the get-go.

Despite capitalism, ‘everyone’ owned Bo Diddley’s shuffle, as surely as everyone owned the basic twelve-bar-three-chord blues progression that emerged from the mists of time. (Okay, I’m being melodramatic about the mists of time – it’s just that I love that old blues stuff).

Eric Burdon once remarked of Jimi Hendrix that “He took blues music from the Mississippi Delta way up to the planet Venus”. This could only happen because the structure and style of Mississippi Delta blues was not owned, patented, by some big capitalist outfit.

The proof that social ownership is more conducive to creativty and musical development and innovation is thus found within capitalism itself; in its antithesis, which exists within it, waiting to break free. And to go places way beyond Venus.

3 Responses to “Who owns music? The ‘Men at Work’ case”

  1. 1 jim sharp

    The Australian Federal Court is nowt but! the judicial arm of the boureois state whose role is to manage the diffent bourgeois as they fight each other for the spoils of surplus value exploitation & on the other hand to control & jail the prolies when need be!

    maybe you shud check out old marx sometime for guidence as you search for solutions to some of your ?’s

    In a higher phase of communist society … only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be fully left behind
    and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

    (Karl Marx (1818-1883), German political theorist, social philosopher. repr. In Selected Works, vol. 2 (1942). Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875).)

  2. 2 John Queripel

    A bit suspicious however that he was sitting up in a gum tree playing the riff.

    I agree however that all music is derivative.

  3. 3 keza

    Hoyden About Town has a post about this which includes youtube samples of the various “Kookaburra songs”.

    You better run, you better take cover

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