Have Most Melodies Been Copyrighted?

Two programmer-musicians have saved what they believe to be every melody in existence onto a hard drive, which they then released into the public domain.
Two programmer-musicians have saved what they believe to be every melody in existence onto a hard drive, which they then released into the public domain.

In an attempt to end what they consider frivolous and damaging musical copyright lawsuits, two innovative programmers say they’ve used an algorithm to create a catalogue of 68 billion 8-note melodies, which they have copyrighted and released into the public domain. They claim that this database, now accessible to the public on GitHub, contains every possible MIDI melody in existence.

They hope to stop musicians from getting sued, legal action that they say stifles the creative freedom of artists. “Maybe melodies are just math, which is just facts, which is not copyrightable," explained Damien Riehl, a musician and copyright attorney who worked on the project.

Putting melodies in the public domain:

  • Riehl said his motivation was to demonstrate that the number of possible melodies is finite, and that musicians are susceptible to patterns being repeated unintentionally.

  • George Harrison was sued for allegedly stealing the melody of ”My Sweet Lord” from “He's So Fine” by the Chiffons. The litigation, which lasted nearly 30 years, ended when the former Beatle was found guilty of "subconscious plagiarism" by a US judge.

  • Singer Sam Smith was forced to settle a copyright dispute with Tom Petty over the apparent similarity between his Grammy-winning song ”Stay With Me” and Petty's iconic hit ”I Won't Back Down.”

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    • Two programmer-musicians have saved what they believe to be every melody in existence onto a hard drive, which they then released into the public domain.
      Two programmer-musicians have saved what they believe to be every melody in existence onto a hard drive, which they then released into the public domain.