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P.D. Magnus

The ethics of cover songs

With Evan Malone. A provisional attempt to sort out what artists covering a song might owe to the creator of the earlier version.

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Abstract

Although philosophers of art have addressed metaphysical and aesthetic questions relating to cover songs, there are also ethical questions. This paper asks: What obligations do musicians playing or recording covers have to the artists who recorded the original versions? We argue that there are a variety of factors (financial, reputational, and artistic) that covering artists should be sensitive to when deciding when and how to cover the work of another artist. Moreover, we argue that these considerations gesture at a more general pro tanto obligation: Covering artists ought to respect the wishes of the artist that they are covering. In response to would-be counterexamples, we argue that a cover which violates the wishes of the original artist might be a good thing to record (all things considered) but that it wrongs the original artist (at least a little bit).

The first on-line draft of this paper was posted 5may2020.

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