Copyright Inefficiency

Allowing others the freedom to sample and remix a musician’s work can be a true positive for everyone involved. In the age of technology, there are alternatives to copyright laws that are arguably out of sync with the best interests of artists, record companies, and publishers.

The non-profit organization Creative Commons, founded in 2001, is playing a large role in giving artists control over their own copyright. Artists can choose what rights they want reserved and what rights they feel they do not need. A Creative Commons license is free and can be issued online.

The organization has grown steadily over the last few years and Creative Commons licenses are now available in over fifty-two countries.  Several musicians, filmmakers, photographers, pharmaceutical companies, as well as the Wikipedia web portal, use them.

Many individuals and publicly oriented organizations seem to be recognizing how shared creativity can promote the growth of art and culture, and there are good reasons why the sentiment can carry over to the business of entertainment and, especially, song remixes: if a remix becomes popular, listeners may be compelled to look up the original.

A good example is the tune “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye, which became an international sensation. There are countless covers of the song on YouTube that use some aspect from the original music video. The song has been recreated in several genres and styles, on an array of instruments, with an assortment of techniques. Gotye embraced the outpour of creativity surrounding his work. He created a video that meshed together several covers and made them work together to create “Somebodies: A YouTube Orchestra”1 .

Goyte has company. George Clinton, a legend and pioneer in both funk and hip-hop for over thirty years, says he encourages others to sample his music in order to “Save the Funk”. When rap artists like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg sampled George Clinton, his records were already out of production. But because these new artists used bits of his music, they brought back an interest and a market for Clinton’s original works. Clinton says: “We knew that sampling would keep us alive and we also related it to cloning: if you take a look at how someone is cloned, you take a piece of them and make something new out of it–sampling is the same thing.”2

User-generated content can also help. For instance, a video titled “JK Wedding Entrance Dance” was uploaded to YouTube in July 2009. The video featured people dancing down the aisle to a song by Chris Brown called “Forever”, which was released about one year earlier. Within the first week, the video accumulated 1.7 million hits and, since then, has been viewed over seventy-seven million times.3 The popularity of “JK Wedding Entrance Dance” caused “Forever” to land in the iTunes top twenty chart.4 If the “JK Wedding” video had been taken down due to copyright infringement, Chris Brown’s record company would have lost a significant amount of potential sales.

It could be argued, that if an artist wants to use a sample of someone’s work in their own art, they should just ask for permission.  However, this process becomes overwhelmingly complicated. It is common for a remixed song to sample upwards of ten, fifteen, or even hundreds of original pieces. Given the current laws, having an artist request permission from each copyright holder can cause the creation of a piece of music to be tremendously slow and expensive. This is true for big name artists as well as independent musicians.

Harvard University Law professor and  Creative Commons co-founder, Lawrence Lessig, suggests a change in the way we think about sampling. He compares the act of sampling a small piece of music in a new song to quoting someone in a new piece of writing. When a quotation is used, the original author is typically given credit.  Lessig suggests that this type of thinking should be applied to music samples.5 As long as credit is given to the original author of the work, the sampling should be legal and free to use without obtaining permission.

Yet to own a copyright for a piece of music means that no one can record, publish, reproduce, distribute, perform, or creatively alter it.  This monopoly is meant to protect the creator, but especially in the age of mass communication, it can be restricting and overly protective. Consumers can be artists themselves through the age-old process of taking an original idea and building upon it to create something different. The technology needed to remix art is easily accessible and more and more popular. The current copyright law also prevents consumers from acting as promoters.

The right to freely remix or sample existing music would not destroy the incentive for an artist to create original work. Furthermore, restructuring copyright law should not need to mean allowing piracy or mass reproduction of someone else’s work for personal profit. But at a time when more artists than ever are relying on the Internet as a promotional tool, copyright law needs to be rethought if it is to stimulate creativity.

By Phillip Richard






5. Lessig, Lawrence. “Chapter 4 – RW Revived.” Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York City: Penguin, 2008. 52. Print.




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