Revised Term Project Proposal

So, after doing some skimming, here are a few things I’ve gathered about what is controversial within American copyright law as it applies to music: The blues tradition has roots, as Muddy Waters stated, “in the cotton fields”. In the first half of the twentieth century, many songs within the blues tradition were very similar, following the same melody and varying perhaps in rhythm and most importantly, style. A song is different if it is sung with a radically different style. As the century progressed, popular artists, starting with Elvis and continuing with almost every rock band in existence, drew heavily upon the blues tradition, following both the form of the blues (which is not copyrightable) and many of the same melodies. Some bands, such as Led Zepplin, borrowed entire songs from artists such as Muddy Waters, without giving him any credit. At the same time, these cross-over bands were much more popular and wealthy than the blues artists had been. The blues artists by and large were unable to take these bands to court because they did not have the legal or financial resources. The next rupture in copyright law came with the proliferation of hip-hop into mainstream culture. Until 1991, hip-hop largely relied upon sampling from other songs in order to provide a beat for the rapper. Sampling, most of the authors I’ve read have claimed, goes along with the tradition within African American music of borrowing from what came before and refiguring it; several of the authors relate all of this with the signifying monkey and African folkloric traditions. Whatever the origin, it was outlawed in 1991, in a ruling that included repeated allusion to the seventh amendment that “thou shalt not steal”. Mark Volman, a member of the Turtles, a 1960’s rock band, went so far as to say “Sampling is just a longer term for theft… Anybody who can honestly say sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative.” Contemporary hip-hop now must make sure its artists have consent (which costs money) from the artists from whom they are sampling. This is a very brief history of copyright law in the United States that I’ll probably put in the beginning of my paper.

The simple interpretation of all of this (which, I think, is partially and sadly true) is that throughout the history, black artists have been exploited to the financial gain of white artists, and, to an even larger extent, record company executives. Why did copyright law become more enforced only after black artists began to reappropriate the work of white artists, such as Led Zepplin? Zepplin themselves borrowed heavily from the blues music and did not have to shell out royalties as the mostly African-American hip-hop artists have had to do more recently. There is a double-standard at the racial level in this history. That quote from Volman, whose band, I am sure, did not invent all, or even most of its chord progressions, lyrics, improvisational styles, harmonies, rhythms, or any other musical aspects, really bothers me within this context.

At the same time, a Marxist perspective might offer this critique: That the only reason copyright law began to have more of an effect upon artists with the proliferation of rap into popular culture was because sampling, an invention of hip-hop, was the first time in American musical history, when it was easy to prove that something was directly taken from a different song. It would be futile to prove that almost every bebop musician “plagiarized” Charlie Parker because of the difference in style of the different musicians, and the different tones, etc. With sampling, however, record company executives saw a clear-cut case of their commodity being used without their profit, and they changed that. Sampling represents a sort of “rupture” in the history of American musical copyright law. I’m interested in a quote by Juan Carlos Thom, a Los Angeles lawyer, musician, playwright, and actor: “Sounds are not ideas, but expressions, and therefore copyrighted works.” The distinction he makes is very important, because before the rupture, sounds were ideas, being reworked, and reformed—ideas so that they couldn’t be “stolen” or “borrowed”, but rather changed within the context of a new feel. With sampling, they became expressions, because it was recognizable where they came from. The quote begs a question: How are ideas not commodities? How do they resist being bought and sold? What constitutes an idea in contrast to an expression? At this point, I’d want to return to Marx and other more contemporary cultural theorists and see what he might say about the extent to which ideas can be traded and marketed…

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