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An Introduction to the Free Music Philosophy

by Ram Samudrala

The Free Music Philosophy is an idea, inspired by the efforts and successes of the Free Software Foundation, that encourages free copying, use, and modification of music [1,2]. Like in the case of free software, the word "free" refers to freedom, not price [3]. The basic philosophy is that abridging the freedom of use (copying, distributing, modifying) of music is destructive to society as a whole. As written, the Free Music philosophy refers only to noncommercial uses of music. There exists a follow-up "progress and prospects" article which describes the scheme I use to market my music which refers to commercial uses also [4].

Even though the Free Music Philosophy does not concern itself with commercial uses of music, the removal of restrictions on noncommercial use will go a long way towards making music more free than it is already. Given the nature of the expression, and the current laws governing it, I argue this philosophy is adequate for now.

Music is different from software in many respects. There are no notions of "source code" or "executable code", but there exist the notions of "musical composition" and "sound recording". In the case of music, these are two different copyrights, and they are offered different protections. Further, there exists the notion of a "compulsory license" with respect to both these forms which allow for free commercial use (as long as the appropriate royalty is paid) in many situations. However, in certain contexts, there do not exist compulsory licenses, and permission from the author is required (with respect to creating derivative works from a musical composition, for example). Since it is not common for people to need to modify musical compositions, the abridgement of the freedom of creating derivative works is minimal. Further, there is a great broadcast medium (radio) that uses an advertising model to support itself and the freedom of public performance is generally not abridged (as long as the appropriate royalties are paid to the authors of the musical composition).

This is not to say that the use of music couldn't be more free, but not abridging any freedom for noncommercial use is a big step in the right direction, with the possibility that a compulsory licensing scheme, or a tariff-based scheme, can be extended to free music for commercial uses also. The main idea advocated here is the voluntary encouragement of people to free the music they create (primarily for noncommercial purposes, optionally for commercial purposes) which will result in a society with greater freedom. The Free Music Philosophy not only illustrates the ethics of this issue, but also serves to counter the music industry propaganda in this regard.

I proposed the Free Music Philosophy in 1994, and since then I've released my first album (TWISTED HELICES' Traversing a Twisted Path) utilizing this philosophy, strongly encouraging both commercial and noncommercial use of my music. Over 3000 copies have been sold in the first two years [5]. According to people connected to the music industry, there are many bands who have self-released albums, or have even released them on major labels, but they either have not sold as many copies, or more importantly, they've not seen revenues from the sale of even a single copy flow directly to them. This is due to the fact that the major label "advance" which goes towards recording, promotional, and other costs is really a loan which must be repaid from sales of the album. While I have a general marketing scheme which I've pursued aggressively [6], I think a significant part of my success is due to freeing my music.

There are other bands that have achieved far greater sales, and these bands don't oppose noncommercial and commercial uses of their works. A prime example of this is the Brazilian progressive-metal band Angra, which has sold over 80,000 copies of its first release, and since their release is available with limited distribution, dozens of "bootleg" copies of their album have sprung up, along with copies of their live shows, and here's what singer Andre Matos has to say about this [7]:

"My sincere opinion is that people who want to listen to the music will buy the [official] record. Everyone who buys the bootleg will have a record. That's a problem for the record labels but it's a big advertisement for the band. We're not looking for money, but we're looking for an opportunity to make our work grow and give it exposure."

There are plenty of other bands and organizations that have also adopted this idea [8], all motivated by the ethics, realizing the economic benefit of the free publicity that freeing music offers. Thus it can be argued that Free Music is actually good marketing. But it should be kept in mind that freeing music is the ethically right thing to do, and the economic rationale is simply justification against critics who would argue that freeing music deprives songwriters and performers of income. It is not that we oppose songwriters and performers from making an income through their music, but that it is unethical to engage in destructive practices to do so [9]. It is what the future is about [10].


1. http://www.ram.org/ramblings/philosophy/fmp.html
The Free Music Philosophy
2. http://www.fsf.org
The Free Software Foundation
3. http://www.fsf.org/gnu/manifesto.html
The GNU Manifesto
4. http://www.ram.org/ramblings/philosophy/fmp/fmp_progress.html
Free Music Progress and Prospects article
5. http://www.twisted-helices.com/th/
6. http://www.ram.org/music/making/tips/DiY.html
DiY music guide (see the "Marketing" section)
7. http://www.ram.org/music/articles/angrinterview.html
Interview with Andre Matos of Angra
8. http://www.ram.org/ramblings/philosophy/fmp/fma.html
Free Music Advocacy
9. http://www.ram.org/ramblings/philosophy/fmp/copying_primer.html
A Primer on the ethics of "intellectual property"
10. http://www.ram.org/ramblings/philosophy/fmp/music_future.html
The future of music

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