Unfree Samples


Writing at TNR Online, David Adler insinuates that the sampling ruling I mentioned here last month, holding that even de minimis use of recorded material in a new song is infringing, isn't as big a deal as it's been made out to be:

But is the decision really so radical? Bob Power, a producer and recording engineer who has worked with The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, and countless others, reacted to the court's main conclusion ("Get a license or do not sample") with a shrug: "I say the same thing to my artists." Patrick Dillett, whose engineering credits include Queen Latifah and the late Notorious B.I.G., said: "In theory this is a big case, but in practice the spirit of this ruling is already being followed. … Most legitimate artists and labels have long toiled under the 'better to license than to litigate' banner." Indeed, the big labels now have sample clearance departments. Power noted that for a number of years, his own contracts with labels have required that he accept responsibility for any unauthorized samples.

Well, that's great if you're already signed to Sony, I guess. But I think this misses the point to a certain extent. What I like about a freer sampling regime, one that has room for poor ol' fair use, is this: Maybe I can barely plunk out "Nightswimming" on a piano, and maybe (make that definitely) I can't afford a professional studio or backup band, but I can take software like Sound Forge or Reason and remix a genuinely novel composition, using centuries of musical tradition as the raw material, on a desktop machine. Now, I don't think established artists should have to fork over a licensing fee any time they want to use a couple notes from an old funk track, especially when they're so altered as to create a subtantially original sound, but that's not the biggest problem I have with the ruling. Rather, it's the potential to chill the explosion of creativity from talented amateurs that technology's making ever more widely available. Incidentally, check out Three Notes and Runnin', a little creative protest insipired by that sampling ruling.

Update: Reader dhex's own contribution is here.


NEXT: Pre-emptive Straw-Man Astroturfing?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Also listen to Paul’s Boutique, or Three Feet High and Rising, which came out immediately before the initial anti-sampling rulings, and compare them to most hip-hop today, even albums by the same artists. The richness of sampling is extraordinary, and was pointing in a very different musical direction than we’ve seen the past 15 years. I shudder to think what the cost of clearing all of the samples on either of these records would be, if you could even track down the rights holder. (I wonder if De La Soul ever paid the owner of that french language lesson record.)

  2. Forbidding sampling and derivative works presumes that the work being sampled is already “finished” or “perfect”. What’s to say someone else can’t improve on it? The court of course. After all, the court has so many best selling albums to it’s credit, it’s hard to argue that they know nothing about music.

  3. Adler’s argument rests on the premise “that ain’t music!” Cue quotes from practitioners of obsolete genres, saying that sampling is, by definition, not a method of creating art.

    Cultural innovation is a young man’s game. STFU, gramps.

  4. But isn’t this unenforceable in practice? Since anyone and everyone on the low end level can create sample based music, who’s going to chase these infringements down? Keep in my mind it would be a lot harder to identify the sample in a mixed track than to locate an illegal mp3 on a file sharing program.

  5. “Cultural innovation is a young man’s game. STFU, gramps.” Sampling innovative? Hah, maybe in 1982.

    It should be noted that it’s incredibly hard to write an original melody, or bass line for that matter- if it weren’t there wouldn’t be a need for sampling now would there?


    If someone samples my work do I get final edit?

    How about I add an extra snare hit every two measures to a song, can I repackage it and sell it as my work?

    I’ve got it- how about I take a book you’ve written write a new ending then sell it as my own “art”.

  6. “Sampling innovative? Hah, maybe in 1982.”

    Sampling is no longer innovative in and of itself, but much of the most innovative art being created involves sampling of one sort or another.

    My cow called, Stupendousman – she wants her straw back.

  7. Hey, just create something original and this fool’s issue goes away. Creating original things used to be the aspiration of the artist. Now, it’s just the burden of indignant lemmings.

  8. This is exactly why we should scrap copyright entirely.

  9. If a musician may not legally sample without permission, why may a visual artist do so? (Eg, the barbie suit. Eg, This which – were Picasso and Leonardo still alive – could embroil the cartoonist in at least two interesting lawsuits.

    Why doesn’t a photographer have to get permission from the architect to use the latter’s building in a photo? Isn’t that “sampling”?

    official FBI notification: Be it known that, as of this date, I have copyrighted and patented A-flat. Anyone wishing to use A-flat in any composition is, pursuant to recent court cases, required to obtain a license from the raymond’s A-flat Holding Company.

  10. i love reading the words of people who have never touched a sampler talking about sampling. it’s AWESOME!!!

  11. “Hey, just create something original and this fool’s issue goes away. Creating original things used to be the aspiration of the artist. Now, it’s just the burden of indignant lemmings.”

    The Fender Stratocaster has a very recognizable sound. Using one just isn’t very original.

    Derivitive hack Hendrix.

  12. on a more serious note, if you go to the three notes and running site, just check out the compositions. some of them suck, some of them are great, but to say that none of them take the original sound in a completely and utterly different and creative direction is impossible.


    my own personal contribution. (yark yark)

  13. Music to read Perdido Street Station by.

  14. is that a good thing or a bad thing?

  15. I very much enjoyed Perdido Street Station. So much so that I bought every other book he’d written. (He = China Mi?ville.)

  16. just create something louis vuitton handbags original and this fool’s issue louis vuitton goes away. Creating original things used to be the aspiration of the artist. Now, it’s just the burden of indignant lemmings.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.