Copyright within the arts is so complex and multifaceted that, unsurprisingly, it is a topic of constant debate and dispute. Its indistinct and indefinite nature makes it an interesting area to delve into, learn about, discuss and question! I have been thinking lately about the idea of Intellectual Property, and how I feel about copyright issues in regards to sampling.
Some argue that every piece of art has come from somewhere (and is a communally accessible part of life), so should you restrict people’s use of it? Sometimes I even have the thought that, surely, one day every musical possibility will have been created anyway and ANYTHING made from then on will be in breach of copyright ..? That’s a ridiculous thought though and not really important right now.. It’s just interesting to ponder I suppose (or not).
The point though, is that someone has created a piece of work, and that explicit employment of this work (to a certain extent of being distinctive and recognisable) should be monitored by the original maker. Especially when the arts are so connected to human emotion, and are representations of people's thoughts, feelings and ideas.
Even the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes that “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he/she is the author.” (Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/). That’s quite a clear case for IP. It is a human instinct to defend our sincere creations, so it’s important to have laws that tie people to respect that.
The problem is that it is still so equivocal. There are limitations to what is reasonable. I think that one should not be able to put restrictions on really simple pieces of music, for example, a drum beat such as that used in Queen’s 'We Will Rock You', whilst distinctive, is not entirely unique to the point it's unlikely to be used again. Or a chord progression of only two or three chords that anyone could naturally come up with anyway.
I do tend to dislike when an ‘artist’ will take a portion of an already-created song, form some music around it (or even literally use an entire instrumental track and apply different lyrics on top) then gain success - off the back of another artist - when it is so easily still recognisable as the original song. I find it especially unfortunate if the new track exceeds the success of the original.
It’s even worse when I really love the original song, and then cannot hear it without thinking of the new version. 'Under Pressure' has been slightly ruined for me by 'Ice Ice Baby'. I guess that’s my real issue within this subject, and what it comes down to for me - that a song with a sample can taint the originality, uniqueness and feel of the song it is taking-off. This could be an extremely upsetting experience for the original artist - for there to be any sort of misinterpretation of their ideas and thoughts.
As an artist I wouldn’t mind sampling in certain contexts, but what is important is that I would get to decide what these contexts are. This is why we do need copyright laws - artists deserve to have their Intellectual Property protected!
It can get ridiculous though. The Verve losing their rights to Bittersweet Symphony, to me, was a completely unfortunate case. I think the song is far more than the strings melody, and has more value outside of that sample (taken from ‘The Last Time’). The fact that the song was announced as being a Jagger and Richards composition at the Grammys is actually laughable. It’s completely unreasonable and unfair in my opinion.. But that’s the problem - opinion has nothing on contracts and legal agreements. (These sites contain interesting information on the case: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/whos-suing-whom-bitter-symphony-as-the-verve-is-sued-by-oldham-1046409.html / http://blog.bohemianguitars.com/verve/).
What can be even more frustrating is the disparity of cases due to words and signatures. That people like Kanye West can literally make their name on music that depends on pre-existing music. And a part of me is slightly annoyed by that.
On the other hand, it still does take creativity to be able to blend various sounds and samples into a new cohesive whole, so I respect that creative side of the process. And Kanye for example, I think does posses a talent to do this well, and create catchy and popular tunes (as much as he bothers me as a human being).
And I guess this also comes down to the intention of making music... Do they want a ‘hit’ - a sure-fire deliverer of money? Or are they creatives, who make for the sake of making; using other works of music as inspiration and creative fuel? (I realise you can be a creative who also wants money, but there is always a heavier driving-force in one or the other I think.)
It is then interesting to consider whether the ‘copy’ song (I’ll call it) would still be as successful or as liked if it wasn’t for the sampled aspect - how much does the song, what’s left outside the sample, need the sample? Is it literally the only ‘hook’ of the new song or could they just have created some other random melody or riff in accompaniment?
I wonder, if they are going to make a new song, why don’t they just make a new song?
Go from scratch. Grab an instrument or a synthesiser or any form of music-making and experiment and create something, from you. Don’t scour the pot for music bits and bobs you can stitch together.
There’s obviously so much to consider here... Too much for any one blog post to address in sufficient detail. This brings to light how much grey area there is within copyright, and the problems that arise from room for subjective opinion. And all of this even changes case by case!
...What a sticky business.
Mark Twain got it when he said - “Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet”. I’m not sure that none at all have sense, but they sure are difficult to fully comprehend.
Here’s an enjoyable website with sample examples, I’d say some are far stretches - you can decide for yourself–
Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Song Samples.