Robot Orchestras: They’re Here

Joshua Samuel

Back in the wee days of my undergraduate education, before I sold my soul to the devil and went to law school, I studied music composition. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult for an undergraduate composition student to get one of their pieces performed by human musicians. In lieu of a real orchestra, I used an artificial intelligence-based note playback software called NotePerformer to perform my pieces for me. Then I posted some of them on Youtube. Now I wonder if that was legal.

So What Exactly Is NotePerformer?

NotePerformer is a program that is designed to sound like a real human orchestra. It provides an interpretation of the piece that is written into the music notation software instead of merely playing back exactly what is written. For example, when you write something for a violin section, it plays back with 8 separate violins that are slightly out of tune just like a real orchestra would sound. Melody lines are naturally played louder than accompaniment lines. Also, the software will speed up and slow down as a human performer would when interpreting the piece.  On a humorous note, a virtual wind instrument player will even run out of “breath” if the composer doesn’t give it anywhere to breathe. In essence, NotePerformer does exactly what real musicians would do when performing sheet music.

What Does This Have To Do With The Law?

Good question. Now that I am a boring law student, I am taking a copyright class. In American copyright law, two distinct copyrights are given for a piece of music: a Composition Copyright and a Sound Recording Copyright. The Composition Copyright essentially rewards the composer of piece of music rather. You can think of it as a copyright for the sheet music and lyrics. In contrast, the Sound Recording Copyright, as defined by the US Code, rewards “Original works of authorship comprising an aggregate of musical … sounds that have been fixed in a tangible form.” ‘“Authorship’ extends to performers and producer responsible for setting up recording session, capturing and electronically processing the sounds, compiling and editing them to make final sound recording.”

The existence of Note Performer poses an interesting legal question: Who owns the Sound Recording Copyright in a musical composition performed by computer software? Does it belong to the composer even though they played absolutely no role in the performance? Does it belong to the computer program? What would that even look like? Does it belong to the developers of the software? These are questions that have yet to be answered by Congress or the Courts.

You may be thinking to yourself: Who cares? There is no way a computer can sound as good as a human musician. Think again. Here is a video of a human orchestra BOMBING one of my compositions (special thanks to my mom for posting it on Youtube anyways). Now here is a video of NotePerformer playing the same piece INFINITELY better. 

So to answer the question you are probably asking yourself right now: Yes, the robots are taking over. It won’t be long before a substantial amount of our music is either performed or even composed by artificial intelligence. As a result, the time is drawing near when the legislature or the courts will have to weigh in on who owns the copyright in these pieces of art. Keep your eyes peeled.