One set of intellectual-property scholars defends sampling in music, calling for expanding fair use to encompass all acts of sampling and arguing that we should do away with licenses and payments for such samples (Schumacher 1995, Vaidhyanathan 2003). This position tends to support sampling as a form of creativity in hip hop that’s grounded in African-origin practices and notions of creativity that should be seen as valid rather than marginalized by the currently hegemonic Western notion of the Romantic author who produces a unique creation out of his individual genius.
Another approach to musical reuse points to the history of white appropriation of both the African American blues tradition (Hesmondhalgh 2006, Vaidhyanathan 2003) and indigenous music (Feld 1988, Seeger 1992). These authors tend to argue for more protection against reuse rather than less, including the need to get permission and provide payment.
At least in my reading so far—and I freely acknowledge I’m early in this project—generally these two arguments happen in parallel (even with Vaidhyanathan who makes both). However, as is my wont, I think the answer to this either/or framework is “Yes.”
Reuse of existing musical material in new work is BOTH a valid way to produce new creative works that should be allowed and protected AND a new instantiation of old practices of cultural theft. This is because the same practice means something different depending on who does it (and so maybe isn’t “the same” after all).
That is, we have to think about and take seriously the social structures that condition the action of reuse and position the people who do it. In other words, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 2 Live Crew provides foundational court cases for both Critical Race Theory and copyright scholarship. Nor is it just happenstance that in the 1991 case Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., the judge admonished Biz Markie “Thou shalt not steal” (Brennan Center for Justice 2005, Tushnet 2004)
2 Live Crew’s obscenity case (written about by Kimberlé Crenshaw in “Beyond Racism and Misogyny: Black Feminism and 2 Live Crew,” to which I can’t find a web link) and their copyright case Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., and the Biz Markie case all take place against a cultural baseline that tends to assume African-American criminality. While probably this was not conscious in any of the cases, it’s never absent.
When black people reuse snippets of someone else’s work, it’s “theft.” When white folks like the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton copy blues sounds or Moby samples blues recordings, it’s “homage.” This of course reminds me of post-Katrina “looting vs. finding,” but also local arguments here at the U of I about the Chief Illiniwek mascot “honoring” Native Americans: “Let me honor you! Let me tell you what honors you!”
There’s something very important here about using cultural aspects of people who do or don’t otherwise get to speak for themselves. This could be literal, as in the case of people who are dead, who don’t speak English, or who—like Seeger’s example of the Suyá who aren’t legally considered adults or persons by the Brazilian government—don’t have recognized standing and therefore don’t tend to be asked.
More often it’s a figurative inability to speak for oneself–the yawning gulf between people with and without the cultural, economic, and legal wherewithal to assert and defend ownership over their creative products. It raises the question, as Hesmondhalgh’s piece frames it: Who gets to be an “artist” being “copied” and who’s just raw material?
Part of this also goes back to the kinds of things I was talking about in Fandom, public, commons about individual authors being both easier in general and built into Western notions of Romantic authorship in particular.
But I also think we have to think these two things at the same time, to ask: When is it one and when is it the other? The project I’m starting now seeks to look at specific cases and the power dynamics of reuser and reused that they embody. I want to examine the role the reused piece plays in the new object—does it invoke the original’s Benjaminian aura, does it comment on the original, does it simply trade on familiarity? Those are all really different, and they need to be teased out case-by-case.
Thus, as I did with the cultural meaning of fandom in my dissertation, I want to get at the big picture of what it means to reuse musical works in the contemporary moment by building a mosaic of close readings of specific reuses. The vitally important foundations provided by both the “more reuse freedom” argument and the “more reuse control” argument give the sense of general trends as “X structure produces Y.”
This opens up the possibility I want to use, to ask: What about this reuse? Or this one? How are these two musical artists positioned in relation to each other? When we look at the trends across all those individual reuses, what do we learn about intellectual property law, economics, creativity, identity, and social inequality in the contemporary moment?