What the heck are stem mixes?


Suppose you’re learning your part (guitar, keyboards,…) in one of the more challenging rock or metal sounds, and you don’t just want to “play the song” — you want to hear exactly what your hero plays and reproduce it to the best of your ability.

There are a number of YouTube videos floating around of isolated vocal, guitar, bass, keyboard… parts of various classic rock and metal tracks. For some instruments, they can be extracted from the stereo mix by EQing and stereo manipulation. Cranking up bass in an EQ while rolling off midrange and treble, for example, will leave you with mostly bass guitar and kick drum, while doing the opposite may be handy if you’re trying to learn a complex bass part. However, if the instrument ranges cross, this doesn’t work — bass and guitar parts in Tool songs often cross, for instance, and Yes bassist Chris Squire (RIP) never stayed in his lane.

Also, as vocals tend to be placed in the center of the stereo image, mixing the left and right channels in counterphase will reduce the vocal a lot, allowing a “poor man’s karaoke”.

A “stem track”, on the other hand, is derived from the original multitrack recording: it is best defined as the submix from a single instrument group. A “guitar stem” would be all the guitar parts of a track (mixed, among them, like in the final master), a “drum stem” the final submix of all the drum channels, and the like.



In a way it’s an inversion of those old “Music Minus One” recordings for classical musicians: those were ensemble or orchestral recordings with one solo instrument omitted, sold together with sheet music for that solo part.

Here are a couple of examples:

It is very educational sometimes to hear how parts interlock, how minor imperfections in an individual part get buried in the overall mix, and how the whole of a song can be greater than the sum of the parts. Compare, for example, Steve Harris’s bass part on “Two Minutes To Midnight”  with the final complete song:







Concert pitch, or how we came to tune (mostly) to A=440 Hz

Yesterday I stumbled onto another of these “A=432 Hz” advocacy pages: it got me thinking that “how did we get to A=440 Hz?” would be a good subject for a post. So here goes. TL;DR summary: there is neither conspiracy nor deep ‘harmony with the cosmos’: the standard came about for purely pragmatic reasons. Let me explain.

In antiquity and the Middle Ages, there were no absolute pitch standards. Sure, theoretical math about the construction of scales goes back all the way to the School of Pythagoras, but that concerns itself with relative pitch (intervals), not with an absolute reference pitch. Whichever fixed-pitch instrument was part of the ensemble would have dictated the reference pitch for the others — and since this was long before the era of mass manufacturing, those were all one-of-a-kind instruments.

The German composer and theoretician Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)
did mention that in his day, there was “chamber tuning” (Kammerton) and there was “choir tuning” (Chorton, which followed the church organ) and that those were a whole tone apart. So historical organs would give us a clue as to historical pitch, right?

Well… it was indeed so that the pipes for the lowest note of an organ “principal” stop were by convention made eight foot long. (Hence the practice of labeling organ stops, or later drawbars on a Hammond organ, by “foot”: 16’ will sound one octave below, 4’ one octave above, 5 1/3’ a fifth above,… the notes played on the keyboard.) So that would seem to impose standardization at least for church music, right?

Not quite. Whose foot are we talking? Each principality in those days had its own set of customary units. We do know that German Baroque organs that have been preserved are almost invariably sharp of modern concert pitch, typically by about a semitone, but sometimes as much as a whole tone. An even-tempered semitone, 2^(1/12)≈1.05946, up from A=440 Hz would be about 466 Hz, two semitones about A=494 Hz. A whole tone down from A=466 Hz would imply a chamber pitch somewhere around A=415 Hz, as favored today by many ‘historically informed performance’ ensembles — but this would not have been universal, and actual concert pitch may have been higher.

The first tuning fork wasn’t invented until 1711, by an English court musician (trumpeter) named John Shore. Tuning forks (or “pitchforks”, as Shore punningly called them) are small and portable, drift very little with temperature and over time, and yield a nearly pure sinusoidal sound (i.e. devoid of overtones).

One of Shore’s London customers was the great expat German composer Handel. Händel’s tuning fork has actually been preserved


and sounds at A=422.5 Hz. A number of other historical tuning forks have been preserved, e.g., those used by fortepiano (and later piano) manufacturers for initial setup and tuning. The record shows that pitch kept drifting up and up, as orchestras kept pursuing an ever brighter sound. (This is not mere psycho-suggestion, particularly for the string section: tuning string instruments higher means increasing the tension on the strings, leading to more overtones in the sound.) Two other developments took place in parallel: the opera genre became a mainstay of classical music throughout Europe, and as long-distance travel became more practical and affordable thanks to the Industrial Revolution, star opera singers would travel widely.

What this also meant, however, is that an opera diva could be traveling to a new city, and suddenly would be unable to hit the highest notes as the orchestra was tuning higher. The resulting protests led to a pushback against “pitch inflation”, and hence to efforts to arrive at a standard.

[[[sidebar: scientific tuning, a.k.a. Sauveur pitch, philosophical tuning, Verdi tuning.

The French courtier and physicist Joseph_Sauveur, who first coined the term “acoustics” for that subfield of physics, in 1713 proposed an absolute pitch standard based on the frequencies of all C’s being powers of two: middle C=256 Hz, C’=512 Hz, and so forth. In Pythagorean tuning, that implies A=256 x (27/16) = 432 Hz. [in 5-limit just intonation, that would be A=256 x (5/3) = 426.666… Hz; in 12-tone equal temperament A=256 x 2^(9/12)= 430.54 Hz.] This was considerably sharp of French Baroque practice and was hence not adopted by performers. A century and a half later, the composer Giuseppe Verdi tried to revive this proposal, at a time when orchestras routinely turned way sharp of this. In recent years, various mystical and numerological ideas have been attached to Sauveur pitch, which has led to some (usually nonclassical) musicians adopting it.]]]

In 1834, a German industrialist, inventor, and amateur acoustician named J. H. Scheibler  devised an array of tuning forks pitched at multiples of 4 Hz, permitting pitch measurements at 4 Hz resolution. (As Heinrich Hertz yet had to be born, the unit was of course not named “Hz.” but cycles per second, or Schwingungen pro Sekunde.) At an 1834 meeting in Stuttgart of the German Society of Natural Scientists and Physicians , Scheibler demonstrated the device, and a motion was adopted to use A=440 Hz as standard concert pitch (the first time that this proposal was made). As Scheibler had many contacts in the German-speaking music world, a number of musicians informally adopted his standard.

The trailblazer for standardization of measurement units in Europe was, of course, France, with its 1799 adoption of the metric system, which eventually became the standard for nearly the entire industrialized world as well as of the worldwide scientific community. (In 1875, seventeen countries would sign a metric system convention, which led to the creation of the International Bureau for Weights and Measures outside Paris.) In the same vein, the French government issued a ministerial decree in 1859 that mandated a “diapason normal” (standard tuning fork) throughout France at A=435 Hz: this compromise value had been recommended by an ad hoc commission advised by the likes of the composers Halévy, Meyerbeer, Auber, Ambroise Thomas and Rossini. A number of continental European countries adopted the French standard.

In Britain, on the other hand, attempts had been made to standardize to an A=452 Hz concert pitch (almost a quarter-tone sharp of modern concert pitch). Protests by singers led to the adoption of a modified French standard: concert hall organs were tuned at A=435 at about 15 degrees centigrade: assuming a thermal expansion coefficient of about 0.1% per degree Fahrenheit (actually, closer to 0.067%) of the air column in the  organ pipes, it was argued that pitch would drift up to about 439 Hz in a heated concert hall, and hence in 1896, A=439 Hz was adopted by the Royal Philharmonic as the “new philharmonic pitch”. The older standard was then being referred to as “old pitch” or “high pitch”.

Recording and broadcast technology gave a new impetus to international standardization. On June 11, 1925, the US recording industry adopted A=440 as a standard. and eventually, this revived “Stuttgart value” was agreed upon at the 1939 London meeting of the International Standards Association (the predecessor of today’s ISO). What tipped the scales for 440 Hz rather than 439 Hz was again a practical argument: the BBC’s engineers could generate a stable, invariant A=440 Hz from a 1 MHz quartz crystal oscillator through a combination of frequency division and multiplication circuits (divide by 1000, then by 25, then multiply by 11).  This was an impractical approach for 439, which is a prime number. Eventually, A=440±0.5 Hz would be enshrined as ISO standard 16.

Many symphony orchestras actually tune slightly higher, A=442 or 443 Hz: a list of reference pitches for orchestras worldwide can be found here (in German). The Berlin Philharmonic, in the halcyon days of Karajan, actually tuned to A=445, to revert to the more common 443 Hz under later conductors.

In the “historically informed performance” community, A=415 Hz is commonly used for Baroque music. Why that specific number? Again, a practical compromise: more or less in the ballpark of what was (German) Baroque practice, and exactly an even-tempered semitone down from A=440 Hz. This means that modern fixed-pitch instruments can still perform in an ensemble with period instruments: all that is required is transposing the former’s part down by a half-step.


Writers, which classical composer are you?

Some time ago, Sarah Hoyt wrote a long post at MadGeniusClub on making oneself “write like the wind”.  Somewhat tangentially related, Christopher Nuttall blogged in the same venue about the three types of writer: the “wannabe”, the “amateur”, and the “professional”.

The wannabe was memorably depicted by Albert Camus (in “The Plague”) as a civil servant named Joseph Grand who wants to write a number but has spent ten years looking for the perfect opening sentence. The amateur does get things written and published, but for him, the writing is just a hobby (perhaps even with a therapeutic aspect) and (s)he treats it as such: if he is too tired to write or the creative juices aren’t flowing, then so be it. For the professional, on the other hand, writing is a day job, and bills don’t get paid unless books get written. [A commenter would add a fourth category: the “moonlighting” writer who has a day job to pay the bills, but treats the writing as a second job.]

In a nutshell, the recommendations of both writers boil down to: if you want to make a living from writing, (a) treat it like a job, and make yourself write whether you want to or not, whether you have inspiration or not; (b) make yourself write fast, because the more you write, the better you get at it, and the more there is for people to buy. Especially (b) is a far cry from the romantic fantasy of the writer as an “artiste”-demiurge.

But is there only one path to being a writer? As I see it — if I may use a musical metaphor — it boils down to which composer one wants to be.

At one extreme are the Mozarts and Vivaldis. A snide joke among some classical musicians has it that Vivaldi didn’t write 400+ concertos, but 400+ times the same concerto. Of course this is a cheap shot, but even people who generally love classical music would be hard-pressed to name any Vivaldi composition other than the Four Seasons.

Disparaging comments aside, “The Ginger Priest” did help establish the concerto as a classical music form, which in itself is no mean musical legacy. None other than J. S. Bach  studied his work diligently and transcribed several of his concerti for keyboard instruments. You might say Vivaldi was a kind of E. E. “Doc” Smith among composers.

Mozart was every bit as prolific and crowd-pleasing as Vivaldi—which elicited from the always sharp-tongued Glenn Gould the notorious quip that “Mozart died too late rather than too early”. The main reason so many of Mozart’s compositions did endure (while the likes of Ditters von Dittersdorf have been forgotten) is very simple: Mozart was a transcendent genius. He simply preferred to write lots and in a very accessible idiom, even as he occasionally ventured into ‘learned’ composition for his own pleasure and was very skilled at it. He was perennially short of money, as he enjoyed the good life and had no steady patron—he might have nodded in agreement at Heinlein’s statement that his favorite five words in the English language were ‘pay to the order of’.

At the other extreme stood Maurice Ravel. Nicknamed ‘the Swiss watchmaker’ by colleagues, he was a total perfectionist with a very modest output (after WW I, he averaged about one composition per year). Financially secure as a tenured professor of composition, he had no need to “compose to pay the bills”. In fact, he was as well known as an orchestrator of other people’s music as for his own compositions — Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition was originally solo piano music, which Ravel orchestrated. Impervious to others’ opinions but relentlessly self-critical, he quipped to fellow composer Arthur Honegger: “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Boléro. Unfortunately there’s no music in it.”


Anton Bruckner was eternally plagued by self-doubts. In response to suggestions and criticism from colleagues, he would endlessly revise his symphonic works  — for example, there are at least five extant versions of the First Symphony — in response to suggestions and criticism from colleagues.


The creative struggles of Beethoven in his major works — the symphonies and the 32 piano sonatas, which have been named “the New Testament of solo piano music” — are legend, as evident from the minefields of corrections and erasures in his manuscripts , which drove copyists and score engravers alike crazy.  The resulting financial woes he addressed in part through patronage, but also through a parallel “pay the bills” compositional output written to publisher’s order: folk song arrangements, variation cycles, and “Bagatelles” — short, inventive piano pieces accessible to a somewhat skilled amateur. Yes, even this archetype of the “artiste-demiurge” wrote to pay the bills sometimes! The writer who churns out popular romances or mysteries under one pen name in order to subsidize a more literary output under his/her own name took a page, so to speak, from Beethoven’s playbook.

Liszt is a special case that has no real parallel among fiction writers: a wildly popular concert virtuoso who wrote piano showpieces and arrangements of symphonic works for his own use in performance (making the most of his unique technical skills), then retired to focus on more profound compositions.

And then there was Johann Sebastian Bach. As Mauricio Kagel memorably put it, “Perhaps not all musicians believe in G-d, but all believe in Bach”. A virtuoso on multiple instruments (not just keyboards), with an intellect that probably exceeded even Mozart’s, Bach was a scholar as much as an artist, and had an active interest in the practical side of instrument design. His work ethos struck an interesting balance.

In Bach’s days, one couldn’t live strictly off composing: Bach’s principal income streams were as a church organist (legendary in his day), a court musician, and eventually as the musical director and assistant principal of the St.-Thomas high school in Leipzig. (He generated secondary income streams from music all his married life, as an organ building consultant, as a reseller of Silbermann’s early pianofortes, and the like.) As part of his duties in Leipzig, for several years he wrote a fresh cantata every week [!], many of which have sadly been lost (though over 200 have been preserved). He was thus every bit capable of churning out works on demand on a tight production schedule. (To be sure,he routinely recycled material, and levels of thematic borrowing that nowadays would be considered plagiarism were accepted in his day.)

At the same time, at the works that mattered most to him, he worked slowly and painstakingly — the first autograph MS for The Art Of The Fugue, for instance, dates from 1741, while the final fugue was still unfinished at Bach’s death nine years later. Most unlike Beethoven, few erasures are evident in Bach’s manuscripts until his eyes started faltering near the end of his life: he would write the whole composition in his head and at the keyboard, then put it down on paper when it met his exacting standards of quality. Fairly little of his music was published during his lifetime, primarily cycles of keyboard works. Bach studied music of other composers with great attention and mined it for forms as well as themes (to which he applied his never-surpassed mastery of counterpoint), but was essentially indifferent to public acclaim or fashion: while he took his musical duties seriously, the very notion of writing to fit the popular fashion of the day was alien to him. At the end of the day, this devout Lutheran with an impressive collection of theological books wrote his major works S. D. G. (soli Dei gloria, for the glory of G-d alone), as he was wont to write on his manuscripts.

Coming back to Sarah’s “Write Like The Wind” post. She mentions that endless revising and agonizing about language will not be noticed by one’s readers. Like with so many things in life, the ‘law of diminishing returns’  — just like a $20m Stradivarius obviously will not sound 1000x better than a violin custom-built by a luthier for, say, $20K. Sure, there is a reader segment (yours truly included) that enjoys exquisitely crafted prose for its own sake. However, beyond a certain point one is better off finishing up and moving on to the next work. One would like to believe that there is a golden mean between assembly-line hack work on the one hand, and toxic perfectionism on the other hand.


The three lefts

It is a tragicomic spectacle to watch the left descend ever deeper into a pit of insanity — and more recently to see them “eating their own”. Case in point: this blog post this blog post (via Nicki Kenyon) about how a left-lib professor at Evergreen State U. had to go into hiding after criticizing some of the latest hard-left lunacy. Or the HuffPaint blogger who cheered North Korean mistreatment of Otto Warmbier (RIP) because at least in one place his “white privilege” didn’t help him. (No, I will not link to this evil spew.)
But of course, “the left” is no more a monolith than “the right” is. Leaving aside nuances of social/economic/religious/… left (some of which are specific to local contexts), at a more abstract or “meta” level, we can see three large streams within the left, distinguished by their epistemology (approach to knowledge).
The first, and the oldest, is the rationalist/constructionist left, or what I might call “the gnostic left”. Here we find the orthodox Marxists and the like. Like some hardcore theoreticians in the physical sciences, they are so in love with theoretical purity and logical consistency that they cannot be bothered with inconvenient “experimental” observations (cf. the famous story of Engels offering to show Marx around a factory, and Marx declining). Indeed, they remind me of the Gnostics of old, who considered the physical world intrinsically corrupt and thought truth could only be found in proper doctrine. How ironical, for a movement that waves the flag of “dialectical materialism”.
There are few people who despise communism and its fellow travelers more than I do—yet at least in principle, the old-school hard left still subscribes to rational thought. Hence a hard leftie like physicist Alan Sokal (a onetime Sandinista) may find himself a strange bedfellow with conservative critics of postmodern flimflam after thoroughly punking a postmodern “scholarly” journal.
The second kind of left is what I would call the “empirical, pragmatic left”. Historically, this is where you found social-democratic parties in Europe, and to some degree the labor movement in the USA—these are the kind of people we might think of as “old-school liberals”. They had little patience for theoretical mumbo-jumbo or any messianic visions of class struggle followed by perfect society: they arose against specific perceived injustices and proposed concrete solutions. This is the kind of left the liberty-minded among us have a common language with. In many cases, we may actually agree about the disease if not about the cure–and many of the solutions proposed by that left seem oblivious to the Law of Unintended Consequences, or to Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. Still, this is the wing of the left with which a dialogue is possible. It is also the part of the left from which people most readily cross over to the populist right. Their natural home is the Democratic Party, but an increasing number of them have become ripe pickings for Trump-style populism—some of us may argue about whether this is a good or a bad thing, but again, we speak the same language to some extent. For example, I can read this essay by Camille Paglia and nod in agreement much of the time, with only the occasional eye roll at which candidate she supports.
Then finally there is what I call the “irrationalist left” or “postmodern left”. While even the most cynical members of the first two waves will pay at least lip service to the concept of objective truth, the postmodern left explicitly parts with the very concept, even as a platonic ideal — everything becomes a struggle of competing narratives, and of asserting the primacy of one narrative over the others. (Devout Christians might think of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilatus as the first postmodernist?) Logical consistency is wholly irrelevant to the irrationalist left, which leaves them free to seek alliances that even the most jaded old-school leftie gags on. “Feminists for Sharia” (seriously, an article in the PuffHo the other day sold that line #singularityOfStupid) , “Qu**rs for Palestine” (seriously, when actual homosexuals there seek refuge in Israel?), … you name it.
If a policy to “help” a marginalized group, in fact, ends up hurting said group, that might give an empirical leftist pause, while a gnostic leftist may try to gainsay your evidence, cherry-pick data, or twist himself into rhetorical knots to prove black is really white. The irrational left simply does not care. “Peacock issues” that are great for grandstanding while benefiting very few people (preferably checking as many “oppressed group” boxes as possible) also have great propagandistic value for them—the more disruptive on others, the better.
Peel away the postmodern verbiage, the Gramscian tactics, and the virtue signaling — and at the dark heart of the irrationalist left, you will find but one thing — a raw, mutant-Nietzschean “Will To Power”. With this wing of the left, dialogue resembles the proverbial chess game with a pigeon — except that pigeons are content with strutting on the chessboard and defecating on it, rather than engaging in vicious tactics (professional blackballing, character assassination, no-platforming speakers, outright violence) not just against adversaries, but even against people who see themselves as their allies.
Anyone who wants to successfully fights a war for any length of time cannot help adopting some of his enemy’s successful tactics. It was therefore inevitable, for good or bad, that some activists on the right would end up adopting mirror-image SJW/SJZ tactics, such as we have seen with the latest “D. Julius Trumpcaesar” kerfuffle. However, it behooves us to heed Nietzsche’s warning (in “Beyond good and evil”):
“He who fights monsters must watch out that he does become a monster himself. And when you stare into an abyss for [too] long, the abyss also stares back at you.”
(Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.)
As for the “will-to-power left”:
wages of overreach are Trump 2

Jam-packed June Booknado!

Lots of good stuff in the June CLFA booknado

Conservative-Libertarian Fiction Alliance

Get ready to peruse a Category 5 Booknado of literary delights! Let refreshing winds of free thought and freedom blow away tiresome leftist reads and bring in exciting New Releases and Special Discounts! Read on for this month’s selections; just click on any book image to read more and shop. Enjoy!


Rocket’s Red Glare (Anthology)
Space opera anthology featuring new stories by Brad R. Torgerson, Sarah A. Hoyt, and more!

For Steam and Country by Jon Del Arroz
Putting the adventure fantasy back into Steampunk for a revival of the genre.

Man Behind the Wheel by Steve Rzasa
50 years in the future, you do not have the right to drive. Pursuit Specialist Roman Jasko hunts those who break the law until he’s accused of aiding mobile thieves.

Red Scare (The Postmodern Adventures of Kill Team One, Book 3) by Mike Leon
They murdered the woman he casually…

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PERFORMANCE: Elites Exploit Shakespeare with an Orwellian Distortion

via Sarah Hoyt. Lots to chew on here—kudos to Richard Bledsoe


Great Caesar’s Ghost!


“…I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have, by the very cunning of the scene,
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ…

The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
-William Shakespeare
Part of the miraculous achievement of playwright William Shakespeare is his depiction of universal principles through the actions of his particular characters. These enduring insights make it possible to set his plays in practically any time, and any place, despite the specifics of their plots.
We’ve seen the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet performed as song and dance in a New York City ghetto. King Lear enacted as a feudal Japanese epic. Young Orson Welles was hailed as a genius for re-imagining  The Scottish Play as…

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Fair Use: what does it mean for writers and scholars?

Academics, writers, musicians, video producers, publishers, and other creative professionals have all heard of the “fair use doctrine”, that under certain circumstances allows us to quote copyrighted text, images, or sounds. But what is it, in plain English?

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not a legal professional — I have merely acquired a working knowledge of the concept through my day job — and nothing I write here should be taken as legal advise.

Second, while the concept existed in common law for a long time before that, “fair use” was officially enshrined as statutory law in 1976 as 17 U.S.C. § 107 

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

[Emphasis mine in the above.]

This four-part test was actually first formulated by US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845; “what’s in a name?”) in the ruling on Folsom v. Marsh: this case concerned somebody who had published his own two-volume condensation of a 12-volume biography of George Washington. SCOTUS decided that yes, such derivative works were within the rights of the original copyright owners (the plaintiff), and that Marsh, the defendant, had violated their copyright.

In plain English: Justice Story argued that by publishing an “all the good bits” abridgment, Marsh had greatly reduced the sales potential of the long original.

Let me illustrate the four-part test with a few concrete examples:

(1) Quoting another scholarly author’s argument in a scholarly work, with proper source attribution, and clearly marking it as a quotation rather than one’s own words: fair use, and common established practice.

  • typically, the works being quoted are noncommercial to begin with
  • typically, the quote is a very small percentage of the full paper or book
  • the “market value” of a scholarly paper is measured in citations, and your action will generally only increase those

(2) Quoting a phrase, quip, aphorism,… of another author in one’s novel, clearly marking it as a quote? Accepted practice. Typically, the quote is 0.00x % of the whole book, and this is actually a way of bringing tribute to the writer being name-checked.

(3) Quoting a few lines from a poem or song lyric in your fiction book? Aha, now this is another matter — because even a few lines constitute a nontrivial percentage of the original work, so this would fail the amount and substantiality test.

My editor taught me a serviceable workaround: paraphrasing the lyrics in my own words. It is the words that are subject to copyright, not the ideas conveyed in them. [Cf. the idea-expression divide in intellectual property law.]

And if the poem in question is in the public domain (e.g., Shakespeare, Tennyson,… or generally anything published before 1923) then of course no issue arises.

(3b) Quoting a picture or graph from one work in a scholarly work of yours? Well… as “masgramondou” put it, “one picture is worth a thousand words — assume the same holds for copyright purposes”. The way I think of it: the image is a complete unit unto itself, and it would be more akin to quoting an entire chapter or section of a written work (or an entire verse or chorus of a song lyric).

And so, where for a textual quotation source referencing would be adequate, one would have to apply for copyright permission to the original copyright holder. In practice this is less of an imposition than it seems: most scholarly publishers have a (semi)automated mechanism in place where one can apply online with full personal details, details of the work being quoted, details of the work it’s being quoted in (review articles are actually the most common scenario), and commercial or noncommercial character of the derived work. (The last time I needed such permission for a paper in my day job, it cost me $0 and all of two minutes.) The licensed picture is then almost invariably accompanied by a statement along the lines of “From H. Slowcoach and L. Tortuga, Journal of Chelonian Reproduction 12, 345 (1967). Copyright American Association for Herpetology. Reprinted with permission.”

(3c) Recycling somebody else’s artwork in your own commercial fiction book? Unless it’s in the public domain or you licensed it form the copyright holder, you are setting yourself up for litigation or at the very least “cease and desist” letters.

Stock photos are another matter. They are “works made for hire” from a copyright point of view: once you bought them, they are yours to use. Their use in book covers can entail other issues — such as when two authors use the same stock photo — that one may wish to avoid, but they are in a different realm than copyright infringement.

Coming back to scholarly nonfiction for a moment: The scientific world in recent years has seen the emergence of licensable image libraries (e.g., Springer Images). Particularly in the life sciences, where diagrams and elaborate artistic renderings are more common than straight plots or data visualization, such image libraries have their places, and can save money compared to hiring a skilled visual artist with the appropriate background.

(4) What about music?

• In a music-centric novel, describing musical compositions in great detail — short of actually including transcribed scores — is apparently fine.

• Using audio of a well-known popular song for an audio book or a book trailer in practice means licensing. It can get tiresome enough that people might instead hire a musician to compose something “in the style of [insert popular song]” and use that instead

• most classical compositions are in the public domain, but specific audio recordings (e.g. for use in an audiobook or book trailer) need to be licensed. As part of the “open culture movement”, there are artists that make their own recordings of classical pieces available under Creative Commons licenses: these may be a good alternative. Otherwise, you know what? Go to your local conservatory and offer to pay somebody to record the track for you.

(5) Reproductions of visual works of art

• What if I, say, wanted to use a digital image of a Renoir painting as a book cover? (Assume it’s a “literary fiction” book, since that’s what cover designers tell me such use would signal.) The copyright here applies to the photograph, strange as this might seem. Museums that allow downloading of digital images of their collection typically stipulate that such images are “for personal use only”. In some cases, if photography in the museum is permitted, one can legally visit the museum in person, take a picture (usually without a flash) and use that.

Speaking of book covers: who “owns” the copyright to a book cover? They are generally produced as “works for hire” by a cover designer, and whoever commissioned the work and paid for it owns the rights to the cover (typically: the publishing house, or the author if it is an indie publication). Recycling by somebody else as artwork for commercial publication projects without licensing or permission constitutes copyright infringement.

Very recently and importantly: Concerning the special case of “thumbnails” showing up in searches or use in product links, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in Perfect 10 v. Amazon  that these are a highly “transformative” use and that they are to be considered fair use. The ruling gave much weight to “the public interest” [in search engines etc.]. It also  held that hyperlinking to such images does not constitute “secondary copyright violation”.

(6) What about parody?

Parody (if clearly recognizable as such) is an affirmative defense: a landmark court case on the matter is Campbell vs. Acuff-Rose Music, a.k.a., the “Pretty Woman” case. It involved the rappers 2 Live Crew, fronted by Luther Campbell (stage name “Luke Skywalker”), who had recorded their own “version” of Roy Orbison’s classic song: they had kept only the iconic bass riff (which I presume they  programmed into a Roland TB-303) and chanted (I would not dignify their performance with the term ‘singing’) their own lyrics over it (which focused on such features of the woman as her derrière, hair in certain places, promiscuity—you get the drift). They had in fact approached the copyright owners (Acuff-Rose) for licensing the song for a parody but been told to take a hike, then recorded their own version anyway. The court found in their favor, ruling that parody was a “transformative” use [in the legal sense of the word] rather than a merely “derivative” one.

Marcel Duchamp’s parody of the Mona Lisa is often cited as a classic example of a transformative work

So for example, if I were to release an album and issue an ad with a picture of my own album cover, plus one of “St. Anger” by Metallica as “this is not what you will get”, I would be over the line — a picture is a complete unit, and promotional material is clearly not scholarship or commentary. If instead I drew a parody cover of a fictional album “St. Anal” by “Banalica”, I would probably be safe — but even then I might get legal advise first to be on the safe side.




  • there is a simple 4-factor test for “fair use”
  • in general, scholarly use is much more permissive than commercial use
  • anything quoted should be a trivially small percentage of the whole work, and in particular should not be a self-contained unit of the whole work
  • use should not detract from the commercial revenue potential of the original
  • there are commonly accepted usages; there are abusages that are manifestly illegal; and there is a gray zone in between when one might wish to get legal counsel, or at the very least err on the safe side.

Media companies tend to be very aggressive (often to the point of seeming absurdity) in asserting their rights: for noncommercial use, a recent development has been Lenz v. Universal Music. (a.k.a. the “dancing baby case”). The plaintiff, Stephanie Lenz, had posted a YouTube video (less than 30 seconds) of her baby dancing to the Prince tune “Let’s Go Crazy”. Universal Music sent a takedown notice under the DMCA: in response, Ms. Lenz sued Universal, and the case eventually reached the Ninth Circuit Court, which held for that

[copyright holders have a] “duty to consider — in good faith and prior to sending a takedown notification—whether allegedly infringing material constitutes fair use”.

This almost creates the legal situation that exists in Israel — where “shimush hogen” (fair use) is legally a right rather than an affirmative defense, and one can actually sue a company for not permitting fair use. However, to be clear: this does not mean that use that is obviously not fair in the legal sense of the word now magically has become so.


By way of dessert, here is a musical example of a “transformative work” I rather like. The original was a Rob Dougan track called “Clubbed to death” used in The Matrix soundtrack. It ironically itself starts off with a sample from an orchestral performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. I remember thinking “boring, but could be a good track to jam over” when I first heard it — then a guitarist named Tom Shapira recorded this amazing improvisation over it. Enjoy!