Copyright & The Amen Break

As I’ve just finished reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History Of Time” (for the fifth time)… And what with presently being in the throws of a massive sampling spree… Plus, having recently discussed the nuances of music copyright – predominately with regards to sampling non-descript breakbeats and rhythmic content – with a member of the PRS and MCPS… I figured this post was in order, as it refreshes my mind as to why I’m lifting breaks from my assorted funk and break-beat record collection… And, in doing so, it also pertinently raises some interesting issues that beg consideration regarding the over-protection of simple drum loops and recorded grooves…

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So let’s enter this murky world of copyright control and start by asking a question that runs parallel to the ones we’ll be asking later on here… Should we patent the individual genes that make up the human body? And if we decided to, having trudged through the moral complexities of this question, then, by the same modicum, shouldn’t we patent grooves within the collective genres of musical expression too? After all, aren’t rhythmic grooves in music self-similar in their regulatory nature to the genes responsible for majestic orchestration of atomic machinery that yields and gives rise to the complex protein based, cellular matrix of our bodies? Except in the musical mode rhythm provides the temporal blue print in which melodic content rests, allowing discernible patterns of harmonious expression to conjoin and unfold through a timed composition of appreciable merit… If we were to remove rhythm, then the melodic context would become exceptionally abstract as it fell without timing over itself into a tormented and distressed performance, similar, but much worse, than the practise of an ungifted musician’s practise.

But as with genes… Who originally created these back-bones of musical form; of rhythmic timings? Who are the original originators that are due their royalties after each rendition??? At least with musical cadence and/or meters/grooves we might be able to scour through history’s books and ascribe a certain rhythmic pattern to a particular artist/composer/musician who first performed it… But even then, most rhythmic meters have been passed down with folk music, stemming from way back the distant past, where tribal people ‘jammed’ together during times of celebration… Then there was never the need to copyright their collective musical invention to protect and ‘monetary’ interests. Musicians gave freely and people gave freely to them in order to sustain their magical talents of song. Then in relation to genes… Well, we’re a tad more stumped… Perhaps we might offer the royalties derived from their use i.e. our lives, to our creator i.e. God… If indeed there even is a god… !?!? Either way, if all these entertained instances of copyright were the “given case,” then shouldn’t we even begin to patent and protect clich├ęs in vocal communication, along with quotes and/or even words themselves? And shouldn’t companies like Roland then even patent the unique drum sounds from their TR-909 or TR-606… Or Fender their own Stratocaster sound??? I mean, what with the way copyright – nowadays – seems to ‘snap over’ and prevent any type of musical “recycling,” I’m really surprised how any musical/sonic artist using a computer can make a living from their trade. Isn’t all the “nit picking” by the big record companies just a scam for every last penny?

In order to understand this better, we need to be more specific… Let’s ask an important question. What is being copyrighted? Is it the sound itself… Or is it the arrangement of the sound(s)… Or is it the recording of the sound(s)?

For example, if I was to write a song, and then someone was to replay it, note for note, beat for beat, recording it all and then releasing it as their own record… OR even they were to simply and sanctimoniously re-record my song from the original master tape and, in their own self professed originality, release it as their own creation… Perhaps I would be justified if I said something about their misconduct and took them to court. But on the other hand, if someone lifted two seconds worth of a rhythm section that I had created/written, having found it while listening to a record that I had released, AND then sampled and rearranging those two seconds of sound into a new and funked out compositions of their ow, via their sampler or computer; compositions that showed no resemblance by own grooves… Then perhaps I wouldn’t/couldn’t be as upset as I would have been if the former direct case of plagiarism had occurred. In fact I’d personally feel flattered that someone was even listening to my music!

Saying that… Some would argue that the sounds that make up the recordings themselves should be copyrighted. As to why they say this, I still haven’t heard a good enough reason that allows me to understand this paradigm. To this note I must ask… But what happens if artists use the same presets as each other on a particular synthesiser, or even a use the same drums and microphones, along with an exact reenactment of their mic and drum placement, along with the same recording medium and mixing desk? Should the copyright of the sound then be enforced by the synth manufacturer? Nonsense… We know for a fact that synth manufactures do not ask royalties for the use of their instruments on albums, and they do not copyright their own synthesiser presets either. Why? Because then no one would buy their instruments for recording purposes. Can you imagine the royalties that Steve Via, Bob Dylan and others would have to pay out to their guitar manufacturers… AND – if we’re going to be fair about this – even the microphone, tape and mixing desk manufacturers should then get their fair cut, as all these give rise to the sound of the recording. This could go on and on, ad absurdum, until even the manufacturer of the components of the mixing desk, along with the guitar string manufactures, and the miners that provided the metal for the strings, get their royalties. !?!?

Being an audio engineer myself, I certainly feel that the ‘art’ of recording an artist for an album that is to be generally released needs to be taken into account too. The recording, mixing and mastering engineers all add their own bit of creative magic to the final mix/recording. And the engineers themselves do not want any old person recording their – and the band’s – work without someone at least asking permission before hand… But to police to perfection the use of snippets of famous recordings, or old bites from obscure CDs and diced samples of unreleased studio recordings in an Ocean Of Sound is almost impossible. Just as with Bill’s literal misunderstanding about how Daisy world could not possibly relate in anyway whatsoever to the complexity of the real world, I fear those big corporate firms are looking for a complete policing policy of ALL copyrighted material that is sampled/re-used by other artists, both big and small.

In my humble opinion… Perhaps these copyright laws shouldn’t be stifling the creativity of future artists who cannot afford drum machines or synths of their own just yet… Setting up a system of fear about “What will happen to me if I sample this?” can only discourage others from making art. As Giorgio de Chirico once said, “To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.” I know that when I sample beats I am retouching past influences for inspiration in the present.

Bearing this in mind… Perhaps the record companies who impose stupendously strict rules on copyright should understand that if the use of any previous recording is recognisable in a new composition, and can be ascribed to original copyrighted (whether the music is copyrighted, or the recordings themselves are copyrighted) material, then it should be mentioned and – if necessary – royalties should be paid. But if the samples are beyond recognition, then surely it will also ‘slide’ free from copyright recognition? This is another grey area where much has to be discussed… While some might argue that without the original ‘sample,’ the ‘sampling artist’ couldn’t have made their creation, and so need to admit some sort of recognition to the ‘sampled’… Others might then well ask whether we should make note of every little idea, speech and action that we originally heard or saw performed by someone else, and then duly admit in a weekly addendum to our life’s story complete recognition of our unoriginality??? And it goes on and on… Where does this copyright fiasco end? And are their any hard a fast rules that are ultimately right? As far as I’m concerned, people that might take any aspect of life this seriously are loosing the plot about what it is to ‘Live.’

As you can see, copyright isn’t a simple affair… At the best of times, it’s a delicate and somewhat impenetrable mass of perplexing opinions, maddening morals and ludicrous laws. All of which seem to be set up to stifle any creativity that is centred on computer and sampler driven musical composition. And, as if anyone could unravel this tangled mat of constricting codes of conduct, I continually look to what Judge Alex Kozinski said during a copyright infringement law suite in 2003:

Over protecting intellectual property is as harmful as under protecting it… Culture is impossible without a rich public domain. Nothing today, like nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new. Culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those that came before. Overprotection stifles the very creative forces it is supposed to nurture.

So here I will leave you with a video that was put together by Nate Harrison about how the Amen brake has forced us to consider what music and art really is and, thus, challenges us to understand how we shouldn’t overly restrict the creative use of prerecorded sounds simply for the sake of getting fat on our previous spoils, as The Winstons didn’t… Neither should we stifle the natural reinterpretation of melodic forms, otherwise we are directly suppressing the very process of evolution… A process that our brains naturally use to develop all ideas into new thoughts and expressions… It is the essence of the evolution of ideas.



Just as Andy Warhol re-used other people’s iconic pictures to weave his own brand of artistic expression, shouldn’t we musicians/sound designers/sonic artists – AND record labels – continually re-evaluate and rework our ideals into new modes of moderated liberalism to encourage others to push the boundaries of what art stands for… To see what art can become… ? While doing this we should recognise those who inspired us, for they left traces of their genius in our own reinterpreted expressions of musical form… I mean why should the companies selling these records get ‘nancy’ over new expressive home cured and brewed similes? Surely creativity follows the universal flow of self-similar realisation, ever expounding themselves in new narratives of form and rendition… All of which originated from their own varied memetic drives; drives that all our favorite artists themselves too once followed to get where they are, so as to guide them into expressing new majestic, novel and contemporary iterative interpretations of present analogical musings… Should we not be driving these natural feedback loops forward into ever more evolved and convoluted assimilations, so as to provide inspiration to future generations, allowing new genius to bloom and better temporal allegories be discovered and enjoyed… All in the name of our listening pleasure? Isn’t sampling just a type of Warholism???

Ultimately copyright a very grey area in law… And I can understand why record companies – especially after the advent of the sampler and computer – want to protect their artists’, as well as their own, rights. No doubt piracy has cost them big bucks, what with people being able to ‘burn-off’ near perfect copies of original CD releases for their friends, etc… So – of course – they’re bound to clamp down on any type of reproduction of their recorded copyrighted material. But when it comes to lifting nondescript rhythmic sounds from recordings… Perhaps the only royalty ‘samplers’ really need to pay the ‘sampled’ is through the direct purchase of their recorded works which are being sampled… Along with recommendations to friends and the general populous… Then I feel that this more than covers those ‘sampled.’ After all, good advertising isn’t free… When you’re down the “rubba” waxing lyrical to a friend about a new album you’ve just heard, one that they might like… Well… That’s better than a billboard in the centre of London.

All I will say is… Maybe if the ‘sampler’ achieves great acclaim for his/her work, then perhaps he/she should admit to any ‘sampling’ of original works, and, if needs be, pay a portion of their earnings in royalties to the sampled artist and recording, mixing and master engineers… ? Obviously… That is jut a suggestion… !

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Thanks to Ralph Pool, Dylan, Mira Calix for various pointers and insights into how copyright works and, perhaps, how it should work too.