Modern Copyright Law Madness Explained

There is a great video on YouTube explaining the downside of modern copyright law using the story of a very famous drum loop called the Amen Break.  The video is called Amen Brother.  It is 18 minutes long so be warned, but if you want to skip to the explanation of why current copyright law hurts the economy rather than encourages it, this part starts at 14:46.  If even that is too long I’ll provide a summary.

Prior to the ‘Sonny Bono’ act and subsequent extensions in 1998, it was generally possible to sample small sections of other artists work and re-interpret them, as long as there was substantial difference from the original, or the original artist did not complain that the work infringed on their copyright.  Music scenes like Hip Hop and Drum and Base, blossomed with the invention of the sampler, using snippets of existing music to build a new work.  These genre’s started with people mixing new tracks at home and playing them in clubs and the like, making little or no money.  With few exceptions, the new works, while borrowing from the original, where so radically different from it to be considered an original work of themselves.  If you listen to the video you will see how unless you were told there would be no way to associate some of the derivative tracks from the original 6–second drum break.  Both genre’s eventually grew into significant markets generating huge revenues.

Under todays laws any length of sample, regardless of how it is modified, must be credited and licensed.  While this does not matter to big Hip-Hop artists of today, it prevents any new backyard artists from experimenting with new forms without breaching copyright.

The justification for copyright as it applies to music is that it encourages innovation.  The argument goes that if people have protection for their creation then they can gain the financial benefit of that creation and are therefore encouraged to produce.  This is only accurate to a point.  While the recording industry tries to gloss over it, copyright is not binary (present or absent) there is a scale of control.  While moderate controls can promote innovation, extreme controls can actually stifle it.  If the laws of today were in place in the 80’s then the Hip-Hop genre would not exist.  Regardless of whether that appeals to you or not, it would definitely make the music industry smaller than it is today.

While this is an interesting story in itself, the true connection with IT is its correlation with other intellectual property (IP) law.  All other IP regimes (e.g. patents) mirror copyright in their application.  Moderate enforcement encourages development.  But if the application is too weak or too strong, then the opposite is true and innovation is stifled.  I think we are seeing this in patent law today, and we in IT should take a lesson from the mistakes we can see in the music industry and get behind efforts to rationalize IP law.