Do laws against hip-hop ‘sampling’ favor the fat cats?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A July 6 Washington Post article details how a 1991 case, Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., changed hip-hop music, by requiring artists to get permission from artists they sample:

“With little regard for the hip-hop community and how producers use vintage recordings to craft new music,” the Post writes, “the law has changed the sound of the genre forever.”

“Today, if you want to sample — just as Kanye West does in his recent chart-topper “Mercy” — you need to be able to afford it.”

I’ve been writing a lot about how big business and free markets aren’t the same, and this seems to fit the model. Big business, fore example, actually benefits from laws and government regulations. (Unlike their scrappy, upstart, smaller competitors, big businesses have the money to simply pay fines, or hire lawyers in order to comply with onerous regulations.)

“[W]hat’s happening to sampling, it’s now become for the elite,” says Hank Shocklee in a promo for the forthcoming documentary, ‘DUST: the Art of Sampling’. “Jay-Z and Kanye can afford to pay the sample rates, but not the kids starting out in their own little home studio in their house.”

Though there is a good argument that the regulations are forcing new artists to be more innovative, Shocklee argues the laws are “holding back creativity.”

Regardless of how one might feel about patents and intellectual property rights, it is clear this law acts as a barrier to entry, thus benefiting incumbent stars like Kanye — while punishing upstarts who might want to unseat him.

Still, one wonders if the laws might some day change as public attitudes regarding the use of intellectual property evolve? As Shocklee says, “a lot of these things are still not even laws, they’re just precedents set by certain courts…”

Who knows what the future might hold, but from a purely business standpoint (putting aside public relations/”street cred” concerns), wouldn’t it be in the best interest of Kanye to support the current precedent, and to financially contribute to lawmakers who pledge to uphold it?

Indeed it would. Big business (and yes, I’m including Kanye) doesn’t really like competition.

Matt K. Lewis