Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Special Type of Thief

Recently I started the process of trying to get one of my musical compositions published.

It’ll be a long process – the wheels of the publishing industry grind slowly, when they grind at all.

But one of the steps in the process, where this particular composition is concerned, has to do with getting the okay to use someone else’s creation within my own.

When I put it that way, it does sound like I’m trying to retro-fit some insidious thievery, or to assuage my guilty conscience.

Actually no such thing. Previously in this space, I chronicled the process of creating a Christmas cantata, which was a set of eight compositions for choir and instruments. I had decided to set some poetry by Christina Rossetti and Madeleine L’Engle to music.

Ms. Rossetti had long since passed away, long enough ago that (according to any research that I had done) her work was in the public domain. So, no legal concerns there.

I used to teach my middle-school general-music students, when we studied copyright and intellectual property issues, that a work of art doesn’t enter the public domain until something like 75 years after its creator passes away (at least under United States law). I used to write on the chalkboard “DEATH PLUS 75” before class started, and watch the kids try and figure out what in the world that meant!

Sorry, kids. It only gets gory if the artist’s lawyers come after you.

Ms. L’Engle passed away in 2007. Legal concerns here.

So, I had contacted Ms. L’Engle’s estate, and explained that the usage of her poetry was for a one-shot project. Their legal people were very friendly, and expressed their thanks that I had made the effort to secure permission. They gave me their permission … and I didn’t have to pay a dime. And I’d been prepared to do so. Remarkable.

This week, I had my first eMail exchange with those lawyers having to do with this phase of the project. It’s a slightly different negotiation: this effort to get those compositions published means that (with luck) money will change hands. Royalties may be a reality, both for me and (if I do this fairly and ethically) for the creator of some wonderful poems.

It’s partly a money issue; but it’s also partly an issue of respect for an artist and her creativity. Bible says: thou shalt not steal.


Meanwhile, this week, the fine Canadian rock singer Neil Young posted a note on his Facebook page. It rambled, but here’s the excerpt that interested me (gently edited by my Grammar Police Elves):

Yesterday my song ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ was used in a announcement for a US presidential candidate without my permission.

A picture of me with this candidate was also circulated in conjunction with this announcement but it was a photograph taken during a meeting when I was trying to raise funds for Pono, my online high resolution music service.

Music is a universal language. So I am glad that so many people with varying beliefs get enjoyment from my music, even if they don’t share my beliefs.

But had I been asked to allow my music to be used for a candidate – I would have said no. …

I do not trust self-serving misinformation coming from corporations and their media trolls. I do not trust politicians who are taking millions from those corporations either. I trust people. So I make my music for people not for candidates.”

The candidate was real estate mogul Donald Trump.

Ordinarily I would avoid giving Mr. Trump any more press than he deserves, which is exceptionally little to begin with. The man is a circus act. The columnist George Will, with whom I do not customarily agree, recently called him a “bloviating ignoramus” … and if you saw the train wreck that was his candidacy announcement earlier this week, you would be hard-pressed to refute either the noun or the adjective.

In this case, there’s a larger issue – and it isn’t even that either Trump or one of his staffers dropped the ball, in the process of setting up that event, as regards a very basic procedure for a public figure.

Trump has a net worth of anywhere between a quarter of a billion and eight billion dollars (who knows? who can tell? who will tell? not him). The guy can afford to lay out large sums of money to acquire almost any tangible thing he would like to acquire.


If Mr. Young’s assertion is true, the guy and his political organization appropriated a piece of music (and apparently the image of its composer, too) without bothering to investigate the acquisition of proper permission from the song’s composer. There was time to do that. And there was money to do that. The amount of money that would have needed to change hands is peanuts compared to Trump’s fortune … or, frankly, my fortune.

If Trump failed to do that … or if (as I think is more likely) he didn’t even consider it necessary to get permission to appropriate somebody else’s property, intellectual or otherwise, then it’s a symptom of a larger issue:

Trump cares about himself and his image more than anything else or anybody else in the world.

If he truly cares about his image … he should know that with regards to this particular anecdote, his current image amongst people who care about the livelihoods of artists is that of thief.

Even before you examine his political positions or governing experience, that ought to tell you everything you need to know about his run for public office.


June 20, 2015 - Posted by | arts, current events, Famous Persons, music, news | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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