Stella Case No. 005, Originally Published: 25 September 2002
British musician Mike Batt produced the album Classical Graffiti for the rock group The Planets. The album had two distinct styles on it, so Batt decided to put a minute’s break between the two sections.
“I thought for my own amusement it would be funny to call it something, so I called it ‘A Minute’s Silence’ and credited it as track 13, and put my name as Batt/Cage, as a tongue-in-cheek dig at the John Cage piece,” Batt said.
The Cage piece he refers to is a 1952 “composition” called “4’33″”, a “famous” bit of “music” — 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence — by American avant-garde composer John Cage, who died in 1992. Oddly, Cage was granted a copyright for “4’33″” — a copyright for, essentially, nothing. Batt’s acknowledging Cage’s “work,” even in a cheeky way, was a big mistake: Peters Edition, Cage’s music publisher, sued Batt for copyright infringement on behalf of the John Cage Trust, asking for a quarter of the royalties from Batt’s album.
That’s right: the lawsuit claimed Batt stole his silence from Cage.
“As my mother said, ‘Which bit of his four minutes and 33 seconds are they claiming you stole?’,” Batt said at the time. None of it, he insisted. “I certainly wasn’t quoting his silence. I claim my silence is original silence.” Perhaps in the world of lawsuits such a claim makes some sort of logical sense.
When the infringement claim came to light, few thought it could possibly prevail. Duncan Lamont, a British lawyer specializing in the music industry, was one expert who rolled his eyes over the squabble. “Is [Cage’s composition] a work? Has it been written down, is it a literary, artistic or dramatic work? The argument will be there is no work because there are no notes.” If there is “no work,” there could be no infringement and the case would fail.
Batt, too, was feisty. “Has the world gone mad? I’m prepared to do time rather than pay out,” he told the press. “We are talking as much as 100,000 pounds” (US$155,000) in royalties. Besides, he said, “mine is a much better silent piece. I have been able to say in one minute what Cage could only say in four minutes and 33 seconds.”
But just a few months later, Batt was done — he settled out of court for an undisclosed six-figure sum, or pretty much what he was afraid he would have to pay if the suit succeeded. He handed over a check on the steps of the High Court in London, saying he was “making this gesture of a payment to the John Cage Trust in recognition of my own personal respect for John Cage and in recognition of his brave and sometimes outrageous approach to artistic experimentation in music.”
A spokesman for Peters Edition, Cage’s publisher, called the payment a “donation” which was accepted “in good spirit.” He said the company had been ready to go to court to defend the copyright they controlled.
Donation, publicity stunt — or extortion payment? You be the judge, but be warned: now that you know of this case, you really can’t afford to be silent about it.
- “‘Silent Works’ Do Battle,” BBC News Online, 17 July 2002.
- “Mike Batt Sued over Copyright to Song of Silence,” Ananova, 18 July 2002.
- “British Musician to Pay in Lawsuit,” Associated Press, 24 September 2002.
Jill, who is (I think) in Georgia writes: “I am a forensic science major, and as part of my curriculum I am taking an expert testimony class. My instructor brought up some of the bogus Stella Awards in class the other day and it was a great pleasure to tell him about the True Stella Awards!”
My 2020 Thoughts on the Case
This is a very rare (only?) example of a True Stella Awards case that’s (mostly) not based in the United States.
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