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I had an interesting conversation with a friend today. He was complaining about the use of the word “folk” to describe modern bands like Mumford & Sons or Dry the River.

To him, “folk” meant more than a style or vibe. It meant a body of traditional music that belongs to all of us. He felt that describing modern copyrighted songs as “folk” – even if they evoked the sound of years gone by – cheapened the very concept of it.

I asked him what kind of modern music he would consider folk, and after considering – then dismissing – the idea of only using traditional songs, he came up with something that (on the surface) sounded quite clever: a folk license for music.

Under this scheme, folk enthusiasts would write a new song, and release only the vocal melody and basic chord progression straight into the public domain. At the same time, they would keep the copyright on their own recording and specific arrangement of the song. For instance, if they had a fiddle playing a distinctive melody between verses, you wouldn’t be able to copy it if you were recording your own version.

We’re not lawyers (or composers), so neither of us can really say whether this is a good or even feasible idea. But it did seem like an interesting one. We liked the thought of new songs going viral and joining the communal stock. Surely, such a scene would be an authentic successor to traditional folk? Just as anyone can record a version of Lavender Blue, so too could anyone do a brand new folk song written yesterday.

But what has this got to do with books, you might wonder?

Well, it gave me an idea. Could there be such a thing as folk fiction?

Consider how Dracula and Sherlock Holmes belong to all of us – just as surely as the old folk songs do. Anyone can write a book about either. Those characters, and others such as Frankenstein’s Monster and Tarzan, are no longer intellectual property. They have lapsed from copyright and are now part of our shared mythology.

Perhaps in a hundred years, characters like Harry Potter or Bilbo Baggins will be part of that same pantheon. For a while at least, they will be private property – only to be used under license. The passage of time, as much as authorly genius, is required to make a Sherlock Holmes.

Considering how much work goes into a novel, it would be too much to ask writers to release their work directly into the public domain. But perhaps there’s a middle ground. Under a folk fiction license, a writer might keep copyright on her novel, but invite others to write stories using the same characters, or set in the same universe (I suppose a good example of folk fiction would be the circle of writers who built on the “Cthulhu Mythos” created by cosmic horror author HP Lovecraft – insofar as they didn’t have to wait for the copyright to expire before they got stuck in).

At the moment, this is just an idea sloshing around in my head, and it will be a while before it comes to fruition. But I’d love for Falcon Berger (in partnership with willing authors) to pioneer new, more flexible forms of licensing. Imagine picking up a fantasy novel, and finding a copyright page that said, “The contents and characters of this book are copyright, but the author invites you to use the same fantasy races and locations in your own writing, either for fun or profit.”

One for me to think about…

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