Sample Trolls

Great piece at Slate on the damage being done to the music industry by sample trolls – companies that obtain rights (often under dubious circumstances) to an artists’ catalog and then go trolling for samples of that work embedded in other artists’ work. When they find samples – no matter how brief or how recognizable – they sue the hell out of ’em. The lawsuits are often won because of a decision once reached by the 6th Circuit court:

There’s only one appellate court, the 6th Circuit, that takes the ridiculous position that any sample, no matter how minimal, needs a license. Most copyright scholars think the decision is both activist and bogus.

A sample troll called Bridgeport is a one-man company with no holdings other than music rights, who basically stole the rights to the George Clinton catalog and then launched an assault to find every example of sampled Clinton music, however trivial. That’s kind of like suing everyone who’s ever quoted Shakespeare — and Bridgeport has made millions doing it. If trolls like Bridgeport had been around when Public Enemy was making It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (which includes thousands of samples in a single album), it would have cost millions of dollars to secure all the necessary rights.

What, if anything, can be done? In the big picture, copyright must continually work to ensure that the basic building blocks of creativity are available to artists and creators, especially as new forms of art emerge. We already know what this means for novelists: freedom to use facts, borrow stock characters (like Falstaff) and standard plots (the murder mystery). For filmmakers, it means the freedom to copy standard shots (like The Magnificent Seven’s “establishment shot”). For rap music, it means the freedom to sample. Rap’s constant reinvention and remixing of old sounds makes it what it is; now is the time for the copyright system to get that. Vibrant cultures borrow, remix and recast. Static cultures die.

Even sadder than the fact that parasites like Bridgeport are allowed to hide behind the law is the fact that Congress could put an end to the practice with the enactment of a single law declaring some small threshold of legal sampling length – say, 7 seconds. “With a single line of code, Congress can make this problem go away.”

Music: Bill Withers :: Grandma’s Hands

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