Chapter 1 of Lawrence Lessig’s book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, explains John Philip Sousa’s prediction that recordings would lead to the decline of musical creativity and culture. Lessig claims that “his fear was that people would be less connected to, and hence practiced in, creating that culture.” This lead me to dig a little deeper into the copyright laws surrounding music and sampling, so naturally I did a quick Google search. The music industry relies on Fair Use to prevent the theft of intellectual property. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, when using the musical works of another artist you must “get permission from the copyright holder directly, or license the work according to the terms set by the licensing contract.” It is also a good idea to use recordings or music from work that has already been published on a public domain.
My search led me down a wormhole to explore popular artists that have used samples in their songs. In Kanye West’s song, “Bound 2”, he utilized three different samples; not all of which were necessarily songs. The first is an excerpt from the song “Bound”, performed in 1970 by Ponderosa Twins Plus One, an American soul vocal group. It turns out that Kanye West never got official permission from the Ponderosa Twins Plus One to use the sample for this track. This resulted in band member Ricky Spicer, , suing West in 2013 for unauthorized usage of his voice. Kanye West settled the lawsuit in 2015, and Spicer received proper compensation for the sample. While I do consider Kanye to be a genius from a musical standpoint, and “Bound 2” is one of my favorite songs today, I’m glad he was confronted and held accountable for his acts of intellectual theft.
A few years back, before I completely understood what sampling was, I admit there was a small feeling of betrayal in the pits of my stomach. I wondered, “What do you mean this wasn’t an original work? Is my entire life a lie? Does this mean they aren’t the musical genius I thought they were?” I now realize how dramatic some of these concerns were, and since then my entire perspective on sampling recordings has changed. As someone with a musical background, I understand how difficult it can be to arrange pieces and incorporate transitions in a song. I have immense respect for artists that are able to do this, especially when the sound is something as random as a bit from a comedy show. However, this being said I feel that is it crucial to follow the copyright laws put in place to credit other musicians appropriately. In regards to Sousa’s ideas, I have to disagree because I believe that recordings have enhanced the way music is produced, while creating a deeper appreciation for the culture of music before us.