The Rambler :: blog

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Why is sampling a problem? 

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So, the big music story doing the rounds this morning is that a Cincinnati federal appeals court has ruled that all uncredited samples, no matter how small, are an infringement of copyright. So if you like a Stevie Wonder snare sound, and drop that 1/2 second sample into your mix, you've got to credit it, and you've got to pay. Previously, the law was understood that only samples of a sufficient length, that were recognisably from a previous source, needed credit.

There's much more detail on the story at All Hip Hop, Yahoo and MTV, among other places. All the brouhaha is naturally that such a ruling will stifle creativity - which it might well do (although, as at least one person has pointed out, only if you listen to the law). As anyone should who has any interest whatsoever in artistic creativity, I'm all for samples, quotations, homages, remixes, mash-ups, allusions, whatever. My Masters thesis was on György Kurtág, a Hungarian composer who has built one of the most impressive outputs in modern composition almost entirely from quotation. One note in a piece of Kurtág might allude to two or three historical works; a pair of notes makes deliberate reference to a dozen more. Now, while it is not technically the same to write, with pen and ink, the same notes as another composer as it is to digitally sample someone else's sound, I recognise no ontological difference. It's the same with writing. I don't remember who said it (but I’ll credit them as soon as I do - promise!), but the line goes that all writing is quotation. No one has a problem with this, and yet why should it not apply to music - a realm in which, one imagines, there are actually fewer possible combinations of notes and sounds and rhythms and so a greater overall dependency on quotation and reinvention.

Now I'm not advocating plagiarism, of course. If you actually steal, in substantial part, someone else's ideas, then you are in the wrong and should be punished for that. If you try to pass off 'Superstition' as your own, then a smack is what you will get. But some things - always the good things - simply pass into the vocabulary of creative work. A new sound, a new groove, a new chord: all these things are the vocabulary of music. You can't copyright new words. Take Hamlet. Were Shakespeare's works still under copyright we'd all be in trouble - barely a day can go by when some allusion or reference to Hamlet does not appear in published, widely distributed form. Shakespeare's success - the sort of success that most artists dream about - is to have defined for all time a section of the language - and that goes for music as well. If we had to pay every time we suggested that something might be rotten in the state of Denmark, we would all be much poorer for it. Mind you, if Shakespeare had had to pay every time he borrowed an idea or turn of phrase from someone else, we'd be at an even greater loss. (Although Kit Marlowe might have had a better time of it ...). What is it about music - a realm supposedly less specific, less identifiable than language - that makes quotation such an issue? I don't believe that it is entirely down to record company greed - book publishers can be greedy buggers as well. Is there something in music, something we don't yet acknowledge, that makes sonic sampling feel instinctively more criminal that verbal quotation?

(Hat tips to Jay Smooth and Dennis Romero for the original links.)

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