Paying for nothing

You have all heard frivolous lawsuits. Everyone has the same incredulous look on their face when friends describe the man suing Michael Jordan for $832 million dollars because he looked too much like him or the prisoner who tried to sue himself. Musical copyright infringement, too, has had its share of absurdity.

A song of silence
In 1952, American experimental composer John Cage composed a controversial piece called 4'33". The piece, created with live performances in mind, was four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. No instruments, no vocals, nothing. Cage wanted listeners simply to absorb the ambient noise.

Mike Batt released an album in February 2002 called Classical Graffiti. One of the tracks was completely silent. The album was credited to Batt, as well as to John Cage, who had no role in the production of the album. Batt simply respected Cage as an artist and found 4'33" to be an interesting piece. Perhaps to his surprise, Batt was contacted following the release of Classical Graffiti by Cage's publishers. Why? They wanted to sue.

So what happened?
The case never made it to court. Mike Batt, instead, agreed to pay an undisclosed six-figure sum. To reiterate, in case you missed that, Batt payed over $100,000 for having silence on his album. Although Cage's publishers did admit that the case was "optimistic", Batt claimed the payment to the John Cage Trust was made out of personal respect for John Cage. Upon settling, Cage's publishers felt "honour had been settled" because "the concept of a silent piece...is a valuable artistic concept in which there is a copyright."

Perhaps the publishers have a point. Silence comprising the entirety of a musical piece does seem to be an artistic concept. The irony, however, is that Cage was not the pioneer in such a musical work. There are at least four composers who utilized silence as an artistic endeavor within their music for longer durations of time. Cage's publishers might have been at a loss had one asked about such compositions, and the "honour" of John Cage subsequently utilizing the same artistic technique.

Copyright law can clearly get a little ridiculous. Had the case made it to court, Batt likely would not have had to pay, or at least would have greatly reduced the fee. Regardless, covering songs can get dicey, and though individuals often purport the value of artistic expression, for those interested it can still all come down to money.

Here is a live cover of John Cage's 4'33". As a spoiler alert, this may take easy listening to an uncomfortable level:


  1. The critics before and after the performance of 4'33" (which I will admit to skimming through) reminded me, in their rapt seriousness, of the announcers in several Monty Python skits.

  2. I had a chance to discuss this song with my orchestra a few years ago. I came to the conclusion that the silence itself could be very profound and removing. It really depends on what the artists expects from the venue and audience in those silent moments. I don't agree with the settlement, but that's done and gone.

  3. It seems to me, at least from what the commentator said, that the silence isn't really the focus of this piece. What I understood was that Cage simply wanted people to listen to and observe their surroundings, and while I think that this is a clever what to convince people to do that, the idea itself definitely isn't original.