Owning Culture: Authorship, Ownership, and Intellectual Property Law

By Kembrew McLeod | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Copyright and the
Folk Music Tradition

Most cultures produce their own folk music, and though the specific form the music takes is different from region to region, the defining feature of folk music production remains the same across cultures. Folk music is based on the practice of drawing on existing melodic and textual elements and recombining those elements in ways that create a song that can range from a slightly modified version of an older song to a wholly new piece that contains echoes of familiar melodic or lyrical themes. At the center of this mode of cultural production is intertextuality, in which texts are (re)made from other texts to create a “new” cultural text.

This chapter is primarily concerned with examining the articulation of the folk music tradition and the social relations imposed when intellectual property law is enforced. This articulation, I argue, redefines as copyright infringement the act of creating and publicly performing folk music that borrows from preexisting melodies. The expansion of intellectual property law into this domain of cultural activity changes the practices folk musicians engage in to the point that today's folk music is considered more of a musical style or genre (associated with Joan Baez, Tracy Chapman and others) or a section of a record store instead of a cultural activity with a long historical tradition.


Folk Music As Cultural Practice

Lumer defines the process by which folk music is created as when “ordinary people remembered older music and changed it somewhat to fit their needs, sometimes adding new words or new embellishments of the tunes.” 1 Forcucci expands on this description by stating that in most cases the creator of the song was often forgotten, but the song was

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