Illegal Inspiration? Sampling in Music

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On my long drive home over this past weekend, I wound up listening to a lot of NPR. The drive was over twelve hours long, and while I have a lot of music on my Spotify account, I’m not sure I have quite enough to last me for a twenty-four hour round trip. As I browsed through the different featured podcasts, I stumbled upon a program inspired by a TED talk on originality. Intrigued, I decided to give it a shot.

The podcast had a distinctly musical focus, and sought to answer this main question: is music ever truly original?

The program covered a variety of topics in attempting to answer this question, and to be honest it never really reached a definite conclusion. One example though that I thought WRVU’s listeners might be interested in is the rules regarding musical sampling. Many genres rely heavily on sampling other people’s music, which creates both legal and ideological concerns. First, any artist that wants to sample someone else’s music is required by law to get permission from the original recording artist. Some artists may believe that they are covered by the fair use doctrine, a legal doctrine that prevents people from being sued for copyright infringement if they used the material under certain guidelines. However, so long as the sampling is recognizable the artist needs to get permission.

The second point that the podcast discussed was whether or not sampling the music of others posed issues for ideas of originality or creativity. While some genres like folk music rely on the use of old material, many other genres lack this emphasis on referencing other music. So if an alternative rock band samples Elvis does that mean that their music is somehow less theirs? This question of originality is much less decided than copyright law, and I doubt that we will be able to come to a consensus about it anytime soon. So what do you think? Does sampling music help or inhibit creativity?