In my Orff Schulwerk workshops, I have been exploring the folk process; how music changes and morphs organically over time. I started to realize that this process is hindered or at least at odds with current copyright laws. For example, let’s say that I learn a folk song at a workshop, or as a child in school. If this song has been around for a hundred years or more, it would certainly be free of copyright, so I should be able to take it, arrange it, use it as I see fit.
But what if my teacher learned the same song from a published book or a recording? Then her version could technically be considered derivative of the published version, which can be copyrighted, even though the “original” material is public domain. So my arrangement could technically be illegal, if it could be shown to be connected to the published version. As soon as a version of a song is documented in notation or by recording, that particular thread of the song’s evolution is no longer legally available to be further developed by creative musicians. Add to this the fact that copyright extends for over 100 years on most music, and we have, in my opinion, a big problem here.
However, legality aside, creative people are certainly not shying away from borrowing material from others. YouTube shows us that there is a thriving scene of mashups, parodies, and other derivative works, that are being published not for profit, but “by the people”. This process looks to me a lot like how the old oral tradition worked, except on a grander scale.
Apparently, others are concerned about these legal issues too. While searching for copyright information, I came across this great article. While the article is mainly about hip hop and classical music, the concepts of borrowing and copyright infringement are very relevant to the folk music and educational scene.