Government and Politics

Black Maryland Inventor Struggles to Take on Racist History Surrounding Musical Notation


pianomanThe U.S. ranks ninth in patents per capita, but that doesn’t mean that every patent is granted, or that those with patents granted to them can afford the fees attached.

One Maryland man, a black inventor and musician, is staring this problem in the face as he moves through life.

Tim Kimbrough, the self-proclaimed Thomas Edison of the black American keyboard, is 56-years-old and offers keyboard lessons for $40 an hour, a price that few are willing to pay.

His patent, though, is something countless people would be wiling to pay for if only they knew the benefits it could entail.

Patent No. 6977334 contains Kimbrough’s method of writing and notating keyboard music. It compiles a lifetime of studying African American music, including blues and gospel.

The method that Kimbrough has patented allows all of the nuances of black music to be transcribed onto the page in a way that the traditional notation system simply doesn’t allow.

Kimbrough claims that if students used his method and studied for the recommended 40 hours every week, they could potentially become masters at the art.

However, Kimbrough can’t afford the thousands of dollars worth of patent fees that come with protecting his intellectual work.

“I’m doing the best I can,” he says on protecting his work.

Others, though, have made a living paying almost nothing for patents and then suing those who “infringe” upon the intellectual property.

These organizations are called patent trolls, and one in particular is still plaguing small businesses in Maryland.

Still under investigation, Shipping andamp; Transit Co. is a patent troll that buys up cheap, vague patents and then sues small companies for infringing upon patents that, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t exist in the first place.

They have been charged several times with violating Maryland law, but have thus far evaded a complete shutdown.

Every case has had some degree of individuality, but they’re piling up in a way that stacks all of the evidence negatively against the patent troll.

Smaller companies and inventors like Kimbrough can only hope that trolls like these can be shut down in the near future to prevent any unnecessary lawsuits.

Most might not see the need for an additional notation system, but the nuances of black music throughout history have been lost in translation when transcribed to the European notation system.

“It’s enabling and disabling,” said Ron Radano, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “It brings slave songs into public eye, but translates them according to the structures of European tradition.”

On the racist history surrounding the notation system, Kimbrough said, “I don’t think it’s racist. I think that what has happened around it is racist.”


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