The number of notes on the musical scale offers a finite number of combinations that can be used to generate a melody. Whether you’re George Harrison or Vanilla Ice, infringing on the melody someone else found first can be rather costly. Damien Riehl and Noah Rubin argue that songwriters spend every day navigating a potential copyright minefield, as every melody they compose could land them in court. To address this, they developed an algorithm that uses a brute force approach to generate every possible melody, which they’ve subsequently released under CC0 license to the public domain. The code for the algorithm and the datasets of melodies are openly available. They suggest that since they’re doing this in MIDI form, the notes are just numbers:
“Under copyright law, numbers are facts, and under copyright law, facts either have thin copyright, almost no copyright, or no copyright at all,” Riehl explained in the talk. “So maybe if these numbers have existed since the beginning of time and we’re just plucking them out, maybe melodies are just math, which is just facts, which is not copyrightable.”
Presumably, any songwriter can reuse these public domain melodies without fear of reprisal. While it remains an open question of how a court would treat these in an actual case about an infringed melody, it’s a clever hack and raises questions about creativity in a machine and artificial intelligence dominated era. In the video below, Riehl explains the project.