Friday, 27 October 2017

Transformative use

In trying to explain when a substantial part of a copyright work has been taken (and therefore an infringement might have taken place), I came up with what I thought was a great illustration. It helped, perhaps, that I was doing the teaching in Moscow, so Rachmaninov came easily to mind. Leaving aside the fact that there is no extant copyright to worry about in practice (in any case, Paganini died in 1840, 94 years before the Rhapsody was written), would it ever be thought that Sergei Vasilievich's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Opus 43) infringed Paganini's copyright, or that it was anything other than a completely original work?

To start with, listen to the last of Paganini's 24 caprices, which is where Rachmaninov got the Theme from, played here by Hilary Hahn:

Then listen to Rachmaninov. There are 24 variations in his Rhapsody, starting with a fairly literal statement of the theme (you can hear that in the last of these three clips). Maybe he would have had to clear that with the Italian virtuoso, had modern copyright law applied at the relevant time. But the point of variations is that they transform the theme, and by the time you reach the glorious and impossibly romantic variation 18 (played in this clip by Valentina Lisitsa with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Francis) it has changed beyond recognition, turned upside-down by Rachmaninov to produce one of his greatest tunes (and I write "his" quite deliberately: it's no longer Paganini's).

The great pianist Stephen Hough explains what is going on in this clip.

Of course there are many other examples of authors (in the broad copyright sense) taking someone else's work and transforming it into something utterly original (in the copyright sense as well as the ordinary one), but I think this is a particularly good one as well as being a beautiful piece of music.

Note: "transformative" is not a word used in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. It is mentioned as a description of a type of fair use in the US legislation, and it featured in the Gowers Review a decade or so ago - where it was suggested that there should be an "exception", created by by an amendment to Directive 2001/29/EC, in favour of "creative, transformative or derivative works" which would benefit what the Review called "the Hip Hop industry".

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