Paying it Forward: (c) Sorts it out, Badly [UPDATED]
Paying it Forward: (c) Sorts it out, Badly [UPDATED]
Paying it Forward: (c) Sorts it out, Badly [UPDATED]

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    This is a guest blog post from Larisa Mann a.k.a. DJ Ripley. This entry is cross-posted from the DJ Ripley blog.

    From Generation Bass, one of the places I first came across the great DJ Lowdjo (outta Belgium), comes a great example of how political copyright is, and how it tends to hand over power to those in colonial centers (regardless of intention). It also reveals again how Soundcloud is turning on the communities that gave it its start.

    So, two American producers (Gonjasufi and Gaslampkiller) release an album that include lots of songs sampling Turkish psychedelic rock songs. Warp records puts out the album. A Belgian DJ (Lowdjo), independently buys the Turkish albums that G&G did, and makes a mix putting those tracks on it. When uploading the mix to soundcloud, it gets pulled for copyright infringement–of the Americans’ album A Sufi and a Killer.

    It’s a mishmash of competing rights, communities, and musical practices, and, not surprisingly, copyright law doesn’t help us sort out anything meaningful. Although I would be curious to know how far it reaches–who felt they had to or ought to negotiate with whom. I haven’t seen the physical album, so I don’t know if any of the Turkish artists were credited. Or if they were paid.

    Coincidentally, Warp records was the only label, back in 2005, to refuse to allow me to include their track on a mix CD I did for Death$ucker records. They said it would cost a flat 200 pounds and refused to negotiate. That was about what I was paid to make the mix of 41 tracks, of which there were only 500 copies ever sold, at I think 5 pounds each. Anyway, I hope they paid 200 pounds to everyone sampled on that record!

    And, where did Gonjasufi and Gaslampkiller get the idea to put a song together made from samples? All kinds of people credit the album for its imaginative use of sampling. The idea of doing that, the creative sensibility that informs that practice, comes from the aesthetic of communities that Soundcloud first built itself around, and is now divesting itself of (having profited from our participation).

    I found the page where Soundcloud debuted discussion of its change in policy and automatic “enforcement” (expansion) of copyright law…I encourage discussion there as well as here.

    UPDATE: Lowdjo informs me that the Gonjasufi & Gaslamp Killer album gives no credit to the artists whose recordings are re-used. This is really a pity.

    It seems like bad faith (I’m pretty sure Turkish psyche-rock great Erkin Koray is still alive and also famous outside the US, and his music is pretty easily findable online). I’m not too sympathetic to G&G in this case, but I do think the way copyright laws links identifiability with the ability to sue ends up strangling some of the great potential that can come from musical hybridity and mixing.  The law makes it worse for everyone involved. 

    Copyright law makes it risky to share information about who made the music and where, because  by attaching names, in the current copyright system, someone can use the law to shut you down.  Since copyright is overenforced and too broadly defined, and most people can’t even afford to go to court, while  the people who tend to have lawyers are already rich enough, I’m not a fan of requiring people to license samples no matter what. But in this case, I think it would be better to  separate the license question from the information question. It would be great if attribution – or concerns over inequality of participation and representation could be dealt with without getting into a battle over exclusive rights.

    Attribution is pretty important, just on its own. Alongside whatever financial advantages come from increasing your reputation, attribution matters for historical, political, and ethical reasons. Recently, a curator at an art museum in Denver made the museum switch to identifying the specific creators of Native American artifacts (rather than just listing them by tribe and region and year). The curator recognized, especially in the face of the literal erasing of past and present people from the public imagination and public discourse, that names matter, and that attaching names and histories can serve living communities.

    So too, says Clyde Stubblefield, the funky drummer, who isn’t an owner of the tune his drumming made famous. He just wants people to know that it’s him playing the drums. And the law works against him too – since he doesn’t own the copyright to the track, the bandleader James Brown does (as is quite common). You can see the confusion in the comments to this video of the track – which is titled “James Brown – The Funky Drummer.” Although he played the beat which is arguably the basis of hip-hop, people can’t quite figure out what that means, and even question whether he played it, since he isn’t named on the copyright. Authorship, and especially copyirght ownership is just the end result of a negotiation, but people confuse that with the law being all-knowing about the nature of creativity. So his name is erased, because he wasn’t in a position to argue with James Brown. But Stubblefield  doesn’t say that he is owed money for that erasure,  he says he wants is people to know it’s him. Although it turns out he could also use money for dialysis, too,* what matters is that we know his name.

    Copyright law as it stands now limits one of the great advantages of digital communication and sampling practices: it limits the chance for actual creative communication and learning about actual other cultures and places and histories.  Since one of the great delights of sampling is the way it both reinforces and criss-crosses geographies and communities,  it’s a pity to obscure the names, communities and personalities of the people whose music is sampled. It denies them participation in the musical conversation, only including people, traditions, cultures into the broader musical community as resources, or raw material, for other people who DO get to have names.  

    Of course you can’t always include names, for reasons of time or expense, or because you don’t actually know the information. The context matters too – leaving out the names matters differently if you are learning, broke, starting out, or in some ways needing access but can’t afford to give much back, and aren’t famous enough for your use to bring much attention back to the sources. But all that oughta change once you are signed to a label with money for distro and lawyers (especially a label like Warp, which spends a lot of its lawyers’ money on demanding money for any samples of Warp artists).

    Its a shame not to pay back at least recognition to the people who lend you their sound.  Nameless reuse can erase the reality of difference, turning everything into a consumerist fantasy, where you don’t have to deal with the lived realities of different worlds and different lives, and you turn people in to raw material for your profit.

    *as I said in DC – let’s not pretend that Stubblefield’s dialysis costs are an issue that copyright law can solve. They are why we need free national health care and pensions.

    For more of Larisa’s thoughts on copyright and creativity, be sure to see her speak on the panel “Music and Metadata” at this year’s SXSW Interactive Festival.