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Can you copyright a melody based on a number?

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Estimable Member
Joined: 13 years ago
Posts: 152
Topic starter  

Especially if that number is PI? Yeah, apparently it can be done.

Vi Hart explains it really well. She's an awesome "Mathemusician," you should check out all of her videos.

Illustrious Member
Joined: 15 years ago
Posts: 8184

it sounds decent because it's all in c major. he doesn't assign sharps or flats values. you could do the same with e or phi or a bunch of phone numbers and it would be about the same. nice, but without any real forward motion.

Illustrious Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 4921

You can't copyright Pi, or the composition technique of using a number to generate a series of tones. But you CAN copyright the result - because that's not Pi. It's a melody, and it has other elements - like rhythm.

Where it would get interesting is around the edges... a copyright creates ownership of certain rights, including the right to control 'derivative works'. Now that I've heard his tune, I might write one with a different rhythm - and he would have a legal argument that my work was 'derived' from his. But my defense might be that I created a work derived from something in the public domain (because you can't copyright a number... and while you might be able to either patent or trademark an algorithm to generate a number, the algorithm in question is something like 2500 years old, so it's clearly in the public domain). I think his rights might be limited at best.

In the video you linked to, he says the original work was taken down over copyright. That's entirely plausible - the melody might be identical to something already protected by copyright, whether the source was Pi or not.

And my final thought - although the above reasoning is based on the law, I recognize that today is April Fool's Day - so the video claim may not be :)

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL

Chris C
Famed Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 3454

The debate about this guy's video and whether somebody else has supportable grounds to make him take it down just highlights how flimsy the whole copyright thing is. It often seems to get confused with the sort of rights you get with a patent, but they're quite different.

Taking out a patent (as opposed to ‘copyrighting') involves searching in a great deal of depth and detail in order to establish whether your ‘invention' actually is original, or not. It's a lengthy and expensive business and you should only be granted a patent on the specific elements that actually are unique and new.

By contrast, registering a song as ‘copyright' to you seems to be little more than making an assertion that on a specific date you created something that you felt was in some way original. It doesn't involve an official search of the millions of prior songs, and you can be pretty much certain that at least some of your song is NOT original. Few of us will be claiming to have invented an entirely new form of music. Mostly we'll use existing scales, chords, rhythms, and everyday language, but just vary the order. It's a fair bet that our chord progression will be partly of wholly shared by other songs, that our melody will have at least a short run of notes or part of a pattern of intervals that has been employed before. Even the lyrics may contain themes and phrases that have turned up in other songs. We can't even be sure ourselves that most of what we wrote hasn't been subconsciously lifted in part from songs we heard in the past.

The debate always centres around how much was deliberately copied or even blatantly ‘derived from' or ‘influenced by', versus just happening to be be ‘similar to' . Ultimately, the only way to settle the argument is by going to court. And that means laying out huge sums of money, mostly to find out who had the best lawyers. The tough part of analysing ‘creativity' is that there aren't really any cast-iron, foolproof sets of rules or laws to slice, dice and quantify such a notion. Registering copyright to a piece of music might give a comfortable feeling of protection, but in fact it's mostly an illusion. It's a claim of originality, not a fact. It doesn't really grant you the rights you might hope for, but merely establishes that you've registered a claim of creative authorship. These days, merely writing down or recording your song somewhere counts as having made that assertion. However, if you do win a case, then apparently having a prior registration may be useful when it comes to negotiating the methods by which damages might be assessed.

That's how it seem to me anyway. These links might help shine some light on the subject:

US government copyright FAQ

10 Myths About Copyright