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Popular songs: Who really 'owns' them? Add to ...

"It started out as my song, but then it became all these artists' song, and now it's really going to be Haiti's song." That was K'naan last year, talking about Wavin' Flag, when his big-tent single became an all-star benefit song for a beleaguered people. More recently, the Somali-Canadian musician has given his tune to just about everybody, telling crowds at performances that it belongs to them now, and inviting them to sing it with or without him.

Making a show of bestowing a song or batch of songs on one's fans has become a familiar pop-music gesture. When Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes announced last winter that their band was defunct and would not record or perform again, they handed over the whole entity, saying: "The White Stripes do not belong to Meg and Jack any more. The White Stripes belong to you now, and you can do with it whatever you want."

Of course, ownership rights to the Stripes' songs and recordings, and to Wavin' Flag, haven't changed a bit. None of these musicians has said that it's now okay for us to download their - or should I say "our"? - songs for free, or to re-record them without paying royalties.

K'naan and the Stripes both seemed to want to move the art closer to the fans. But they also opened up space between the art and themselves, in a way that wasn't just about being generous. K'naan, who became the world's Wavin' Flag guy when Coca-Cola made the song its theme during the World Cup of soccer, has a lot of other tunes he wants people to hear. Jack White has two or three other bands to promote, and may find that easier to do after publicly cutting loose from the Stripes.

The fact is, a successful song or collection of songs can become a burden you can't put down. The music industry is full of performers who feel obliged to go on playing a past hit that they find tedious or limiting to repeat, but that the fans won't let go. It's "their" song, and they won't be happy till they hear it again.

"I'd rather be dead than singing Satisfaction when I'm 45," Mick Jagger famously said. But Satisfaction, a signature Rolling Stones hit from 1969, remained a fixture on the band's 2007 A Bigger Bang tour, which ended a month after Jagger's 64th birthday.

In a 2000 interview with The Globe, the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde said of the band's biggest hit: "I listen to Brass in Pocket and I think, 'That's not very good; I wonder what all the fuss was about.' " But Hynde and the Pretenders still did the 1980 song in most shows during their latest tour two years ago. It also bobbed up on a recent commercial for the BlackBerry PlayBook.

Some performers rebel, even while seeming to comply. When Bob Dylan began playing Like a Rolling Stone at a concert in London, Ont., a few years ago, a rush of pleasure rippled through the crowd, followed swiftly by disappointment. Dylan had no intention of doing anything like the album version, or even of singing the original melody. The song as performed was almost unrecognizable.

Other musicians - including, presumably, Jagger - make their peace with the songs that won't go away. Gordon Lightfoot plays his nine most popular tunes at every single show he does (over 80 gigs last year), and seems never to have complained about it, at least not in public.

Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote the giveaway gesture right into 1969's Your Song, which includes the line, "and you can tell everybody that this is your song." The wide appeal of this kind of universal personalism can be gauged by the fact that Your Song was the first thing played at the recent wedding reception of Prince William, whose extensive personal fortune came down to him from generations of royals who believed that their lands, livestock and peasants were theirs by the grace of God.

Even so, there's a shifting point at which generosity ends and a perception of over-sharing begins. Nobody criticized K'naan for letting Coca-Cola (and more recently, cellphone maker HTC) exploit his feel-good anthem for commercial advantage, while saying it belonged to us. But Moby, who never said that the songs on his 1999 breakthrough album Play belonged to anyone but himself, suffered a long-lasting bruise to his reputation when he revealed that every song on the disc had been licensed for some kind of ad.

It's also worth asking who "owns" a song when it becomes deeply embedded in a product promotion, the way Feist's 1,2,3,4 did after Apple used it for a very extensive iPod campaign in 2007. Can anyone hear that song now without thinking of those ads? Is it still, in an experiential sense, Feist's song, or does it now "belong" to Steve Jobs? Maybe the lyrics contain a clue: "Left you with nothing, but they want some more.… Money can't buy you back the love that you had then."

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