With Theft!, Two Duke Law Professors Examine The History of "Borrowing" in Music | Music Feature | Indy Week
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With Theft!, Two Duke Law Professors Examine The History of "Borrowing" in Music 

"Even if you think you know the story, it turns out there's probably a lot you don't," Duke Law professor James Boyle says. He's referring to an emotional and complicated subject, the history of "theft" in music, which he and his Duke Law colleague Jennifer Jenkins felt moved to research and share with the world in comic book form.

The comic book, Theft!, is not so much concerned with the twenty-first-century sense of musical theft—piracy and illegal file-sharing—as it is with the way musicians have borrowed from, emulated, and sampled one another and how attempts at musical control, in history and modern times, are really attempts at social control. In the same way that Plato thought changes in musical modes could incite social revolution, George Wallace, Alabama's forty-fifth governor, worried that the cross-racial cultural exchange facilitated by rock music would revolutionize segregated Southern society.

"We want to tell you the story of how music gets made, and we want to tell you about the people who have attempted to control the process," Boyle says. "Plato saying, 'You must not mix musical modes!' is the same thing as George Wallace saying, 'Rock 'n' roll debases culture!'"

It's not frequently that "Plato" and "rock 'n' roll" are uttered in one breath, but the comparison demonstrates the expansive knowledge Boyle and Jenkins have acquired over their seven-year study of music history. When they were trying to decide how the fruits of their long labor would be shared, they threw out the idea of a standard academic book or paper. Music is beloved by almost everyone in some form, and Jenkins and Boyle thought stiff academic prose would not do it justice.

"We think academia has real insights about our culture, but we want to share it in a way people might also read," Boyle says.

"Remember when you were a teenager and the only thing more important to you than music was the person you were in love with?" Theft! asks. Indeed, music can move us in ways that, perhaps, only things like romance can. Boyle and Jenkins wanted to share their research through an equally moving medium, which is why they decided on a comic.

The book depicts Boyle and Jenkins journeying through time and space, seeing how music has been inherited and restricted from the Greeks to Kanye West. Artists Ian Akin and Brian Garvey allow them to present detailed information in an engaging, transparent narrative.

"I want it to be accessible all across the world as an educational resource," Boyle says.

Captivating illustrations enable that accessibility, as does the fact that Theft! is available for free download online under a Creative Commons license. As copyright specialists, Boyle and Jenkins felt it appropriate to offer a comic about the benefits of uninhibited musical borrowing without a price tag.

While music is inspiring, emotional, and exciting, it has always been highly politicized. "Music is one of the cultural things that makes people realize how evil and wrong segregation was," Boyle says.

When lines between "white" and "black" music began to dissolve with the advent of rock 'n' roll, pro-segregation politicians got worried. The increased cultural discourse, especially among young people, meant that the dominos were starting to fall in favor of integration. But Boyle and Jenkins also make clear that such "cultural cross-fertilization" is not without its problematic side.

"White artists got screwed, black artists got treated worse," Boyle notes.

When white artists made music inspired by black artists, the white artists were often perceived as originators of the form. The black artists whose work white artists emulated rarely, if ever, received proper acknowledgement—financial or otherwise. Boyle wants people to be aware of both sides of musical borrowing.

"It's not that there wasn't wrongful appropriation," he says, "it's that's not all there was."

The risk in regulating which motifs, styles, and genres musicians can and can't borrow, what influences people can and can't take, is that it can preclude the politically and culturally progressive results of musical "theft." Theft! also aims to push back against a legal-cultural trend of overregulating musical adaptation and adoption.

"Could we have jazz, soul music under contemporary musical culture? And I think the answer is no, and that ought to make us pause," says Boyle. He wants to protect the notion that lifting and borrowing isn't unequivocally bad; it's in fact been an important part of creative processes for centuries.

"I want to make sure that to the extent that people want to build on their prior culture, they can," he says.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Steal This Book."

  • You can download the comic for free through a Creative Commons license.

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