Martin Zeilinger

Live Coding the Law: Improvisation, Code & Copyright

date: 10 February 2014
tags: music, live coding, IP, copyright

Published in Computer Music Journal 38:1 (2014), in a special issue edited by Alex McLean, Julian Rohrhuber, and Nick Collins


This article concerns the emerging creative practice of live coding (i.e., the real-time programming of electronic music in text-based programming environments), and explores how this practice can be deployed as atactic of resistance against the overreach of restrictive intellectual property policy. I begin by surveying definitions of copyright and patent law, and related issues, to situate live coding in the field of existing perspectives on cultural ownership. Drawing on legal theory and critical discourse on improvised music in other genres, I then argue that the dynamic, palimpsestic, and improvisational qualities of live coding contradict many of copyright law’s core assumptions regarding the nature of “fixed” works of art. These contradictions can be usefully mobilized for the purpose of resisting legal and economic enclosures of the digital cultural commons. As I conclude, live coding can, from its current, inherently ambivalent position on copyright matters, develop a strong, performance-based critical stance against the imbalances and shortcomings of intellectual property regimes and outdated notions of exclusive cultural ownership. Integrating artistic practices with ongoing and emerging critiques of intellectual property, such resistance can go a long way towards highlighting readily available opportunities to oppose and confound the law.