Before I get to why, I have a question: will Apple Music Connect, “a place where musicians give their fans a closer look at their work, their inspirations, and their world,” that has the words “zero interference” front and center, allow artists to post mashups? Later I’ll remind you why you should care about the answer to this question. I think that copyright as it is currently conceived in Canada and the U.S. is bad, and is being changed bit by bit to help rich people and corporations, and to hurt creativity, young people and music. But I still ❤️ copyright, and I’m going to try and explain why. The easiest way to do so is with a story.
Here’s a little story I’d like to tell about three bad brothers you know so well. Had this been an academic publication, I would have had to post a footnote or something that contains the following facts:
- The first sentence of this paragraph is taken from the defunct, multiple Grammy winning artists The Beastie Boys.
- It is taken from the album titled “Licensed to Ill,” released 1986, copyright Polygram.
The overall reason I ❤️ copyright is that without it, the story of The Beastie Boys could never have happened. Here’s why.
Three middle class Jewish New Yorkers, in the midst of a short teenage punk rock career, started recording expensively produced, full of studio-quality mixed samples of other artists. They didn’t ask permission or pay any money for the samples. I know what you’re thinking — their rich parents probably paid for everything. Not true! They had around $40,000 with which they could hang out, not go to school, and work at some creative ideas. “Well how did they get that $40k?” you ask.
They made a call to a Carvel ice cream shop, recorded their crank request for prostitution services, and placed that recording over some beats from a toy. That track became the title track for an E.P., “Cooky Puss.” Another track on the E.P. was a reggae/dancehall satire. Then they circulated the E.P. to their punk friends. Someone knew a guy (it almost certainly had to be a guy back in those days) and, lo and behold, British Airways sampled the Cooky Puss E.P. for one of their television commercials. This was back in the days when broadcast TV was BIG. Imagine Super Bowl-sized viewing audiences being advertised to every week.
The BBoys lawyered up, sued British Airways for — wait for it, copyright infringement — and got paid. $40,000 to be exact. A biographer says with the money “the Beasties bought autonomy” and quit their day jobs to make music full time. They were able to jam in their own pad, using the toys available at the time, and give us what Rolling Stone has called the greatest debut album of all time.
1. I ❤️ copyright because it is the kind of law that let the Beastie Boys, unknowns with very little power or money go up to British Airways and say ‘yo, where’s my money?’
And then the world was blessed with Licensed to Ill. Already you should be thinking ‘WTF? I thought those Beastie Boys were the biggest copyright violators around.’ In a sense, you’re right. There were at least a dozen unlicensed samples in that album by such bands as
Led Zeppelin, Bo Diddley, Juice, Joeski Love, Beside, Bob James, Kool & The Gang, The Jimmy Castor Bunch, Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, Kurtis Blow, Trouble Funk, Funk Inc., Run-DMC, War, Fat Larry’s Band, Barry White, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Schoolly D, Billy Preston, Jay Livingstone, The Steve Miller Band, Cerrone, The Russell Brothers, Ralph MacDonald, Black Sabbath, The Clash, Wild Sugar and Sugarhill Gang.
And yet despite Licensed to Ill being a massive commercial success, the Beastie Boys weren’t sued into oblivion. What gives!?
Whatever copyright was in the mid to late 1980s, it stayed that way until at least 1989. That year the Beastie Boys released their follow up to Licensed to Ill, titled Paul’s Boutique. This album is widely regarded as a ‘critical success’, despite being a ‘commercial failure’ at the time. Let me repeat that: Paul’s Boutique is contrasted with ‘the greatest debut album of all time’ as being critically well-regarded. Here’s Rolling Stone’s review. Notable in that review is their consideration of the vast number of samples on the album: “If you can recognize them, fine, but they stand on their own; it’s no more thievery than Led Zep’s borrowing from Muddy Waters.”
The complete list of samples on Paul’s Boutique has been crowdsourced and posted online at www.paulsboutique.info. Wikipedia describes there as being 105 samples on the album which were in fact cleared for use from their copyright holders, costing $250,000. A recent study suggests that if current copyright law prevailed at the time the album was recorded, then with the sales Paul’s Boutique generated when it was released (2.5m) it would have been a net loser, to the tune of -$20m USD. If copyright then was like copyright now, that album could never have been made.
2. I ❤️ copyright because there’s a version of it according to which making new music with other people’s music is OK, or at least not limited to the rich and powerful.
Sampling is one way in which the Beastie Boys interacted with other musicians and music across vast reaches of time and space. Here’s some others. Did you know that LL Cool J was discovered and had his career launched by Adam Horovitz (“Adrock”) of the Beastie Boys in 1984? Did you know that the song Slow and Low, on Licensed to Ill, was gifted by Run DMC to the Beastie Boys? It’s true! Here’s the BB performing it live in 1987, and here’s Run DMC’s demo version. Wow, those sure are different!
Lots of different musicians borrow music, and have their music borrowed. There’s Led Zeppelin, who were sampled all over the place on Licensed to Ill. Not only are they doing OK, they’re no strangers to musical borrowing! Borrowing happens across genres and decades. Listen to how this sample from Ronnie Lawson was used in Shake Your Rump and in a forgotten techno record from 1995. Copyright isn’t just about money — it’s about a law that says that you have the right to be recognized for what you made.
3. I ❤️ copyright because it brings past and present together, builds bridges between culture. Hey, wait a minute. I thought copyright was all evil and stuff.
It is! We live in a time in which the toys we have available for making new out of old and sharing with others is cheaper and easier than ever before. Make no mistake — music has always been about making new out of old, and sharing with others. But governments are making it harder than ever to do both of those things. We live in a time in which copyright is a wild beast, with the potential to destroy the very things it was created to encourage. Copyright as it is now would have killed the Beastie Boys in their cradle, after they spent all of their $40k on lawyers and copyright permissions.
Here’s another story, but a more recent one. An 18 year old French kid (Madeon) posts a video on YouTube in which he uses samples from his favorite pop artists to make an original composition using an electronic toy. He posts a bunch of his music to an online community (SoundCloud). The community flourishes: artists starting out post remixes, mashups and other forms of new out of old. But as soon as there’s money to be made, down drops the copyright hammer. I encourage you to read Madeon’s tweet about what Sony is doing to SoundCloud there. Do you really think that Madeon could have gotten his start on Apple Music Connect? Do you think they’ll let musicians sample and post?
I want to end on a positive note. Apparently, in Adam Yauch’s (MCA’s) will, there is a provision that prevents his musical work from being used for advertising. Legal experts disagree on whether it is enforceable, but they agree that the fact that he has a chance for a say at all is thanks to copyright law. Not allowing music by the Beastie Boys to be used in advertising has been a consistent position since the beginning with the British Airways incident, through the thing with the startup trying to sell egalitarian engineering toys, through to the every end of the Beastie Boys.
Whatever copyright is, or is becoming, it makes it possible for people to say how their creative works will be used. Therein lies its central tension. If it gives artists too much power, then it hurts the drive to create. Recent copyright hacks like the GPL and Copyleft couldn’t exist without copyright law. When I say they are ‘copyright hacks’ what I mean is that they let artists release creative works that can be used to make other creative works, but (in some versions) can’t be used for advertising.
4. I ❤️ copyright because it lets people (including, maybe, even ones who have left us) say ‘I don’t want my music to be used to sling other stuff.’
Copyright is changing. Recently, a case was won in which creative elements from the underlying composition were judged to have been copied — no samples, but bits of style and melody. In the words of the lawyer representing the alleged copiers, this could “have a chilling effect on musicians who try to emulate an era or another artist’s sound.” If this stands, we could be entering a copyright regime that would have killed Led Zeppelin in their cradle. Still, we can dream.
Summarizing, I think we should all ❤️ copyright. Some of the most well-loved music of all time wouldn’t exist without it. It is a weapon that can be wielded by all, including the less powerful. It lets people be recognized for their contributions. In some versions it closes divides between people, and lets artists have a vision for how their art will be used.
Last year I posted another story that couldn’t have happened without copyright. For the record, when I asked John Harris if he minded being sampled without his permission and used in a musical recording heard by millions of people, without even getting credit, he said he was just glad that his poetry was being heard.