Lyrics, and Legal Limits on Quoting and Reference for Literary Purposes

Current interpretations of copyright law limit quotation and reference, even for literary purposes.

Direct quotation without permission is only allowed in small amounts. Evident literary purpose gives a bit greater latitude, but complete quotation is still disallowed unless you get permission from the copyright owner.

Evident literary purposes include analysis and criticism, which are essential, not just for maintaining freedom, but also for basic social function even in a totalitarian regime. (This is part of why totalitarian societies tend not to function, as a matter of fact -- control freaks don't realize they can't get necessary help if they refuse to let people help them.)

Reference is generally not restricted, since restrictions against reference severely hamper both freedom of speech and the support of official propaganda. Such restrictions block analysis and criticism, as well. Still, many intellectual property advocates have been pushing for extended rights over reference. They say they have to have such rights to make their money. 

(I think they may be confusing copyright with patents, improperly understood, but it's also clear they don't know which side their bread is buttered on.

In the US and some other countries, the tradition of freedom of speech allows more extensive quotation and reference in parody and satire, as both are seen as necessary for political discourse. But, here, too, intellectual property advocates have been eroding the privilege of satire, and are attacking parody. Again, the claims are about money, but I tend to disbelieve their sincerity.

Unfortunately, interpretation is no longer allowed. Parody and satire are described as exceptions to the general restrictions.

Interpretation was allowed in the US in the first half of the 20th century, as part of the general open conversation principle. You go back to around 1930 to 1960 and see a lot of popular songs that are part of the public conversation between artists. One artist releases a song, and another decides he wants to answer the song, to contradict, agree, question, or interpret.

And the answer often borrows heavily from the original. Without the borrowing, the fact of the conversation gets lost.

Weird Al Yankovich generally asks permission of the original artist before doing a parody. (He has cred, so artists generally agree readily. Many even offer to help.) In the 1940s, such a request was seen as a courtesy to the original artist, not a legal requirement. These days, many rights-holders think they have the right to such a request, have a right to refuse to allow a parody, and have a right to sue and demand money if there was no request. All non sequitur.

But the cost of going to court to defend oneself from such a rights-holder, and the lack of recourse for an abusive suit, essentially has granted artists such rights.

Now, I think that courtesy is a good thing, if it is not mandated by law or effectively enforced through threat of legal action. If courtesy becomes enforced, it is no longer courtesy.

I also think that quoting entire lyrics in a published (non-academic) analysis is often just plain going too far. Literarily speaking. And not always. Usually, the point one wants to make can be better made by limiting both the analysis and the quoting.

As an example, say I want to do a literary analysis of a song by The Beach Boys. In this case, it was "The Girls on the Beach". In the US, I can do a full analysis of the entire lyrics for an English literature class paper or a psychology class research project, as long as I don't publish the paper.

But if I want to blog about it I have to limit my thoughts a bit. That allows me to focus my analysis on wondering the question of whether guys should think girls should be "within reach", but I may be inviting a suit if I extend my thoughts to the idea that the listener should think that someone is waiting on the beach for him or her.

Some unscrupulous lawyer might decide to come after me for quoting too much, or making too much reference. And I would have to spend some of my hard-earned money and my important time hiring a lawyer just to tell them I wouldn't rollover to their illegitimate demands. And they would try to spend more of my money and time trying to convince me to pay the Dane-geld.

So, yes, focus is also good. Just like courtesy. But enforced focus is probably detrimental to the social conversation, and thus to the health of society.

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