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Sounding Off: Who 'Owns' A Sample?

Chris Eccles By Chris Eccles
Published October 2002

Copyright law may be very rigid these days, but in the context of creativity, who actually 'owns' a sample?

Cast your mind back to the 1920s... Around about then, there was a movement in painting that involved the use of 'objets trouvé', literally 'found things'. Even if you're not a fine-art buff, I'm sure that you must have seen at least one of these paintings, which often involve a scrap of a newspaper cutting, a collage of torn photos, or something similar. The work is evocative and often surreal, and these paintings caused quite a stir at the time they were created.

SOUNDING OFF October 2002 Chris Eccles, the author.Objets trouvé paintings aren't dissimilar to what some musicians do nowadays with audio samples, which raises the question of whether or not the creativity stems from the creator of the original material. Consider an objets trouvé painting: are we to credit the writer who wrote the article that the torn newspaper cutting comes from? Or the magazine editor who put together a few photos on the page of an ephemeral publication that most readers threw away the next week? I think not — the work of the writer and editor existed in a different time-frame and a different context.

There's a great deal of prima donna carry-on about sample clearance these days. A second-rate 1950s B-movie actor once reached down and grabbed a police station microphone and said "keep this frequency clear". In the context of the movie, he made an artistic statement, and in the context of the movie this statement passed as just another piece of dialogue. Whether we give it any deep significance is a discussion for another day — maybe it meant something, maybe it didn't. However, in 1988 Bomb The Bass picked up this obscure snippet of B-movie drivel and used it to create what is arguably one of the great house tracks of all time. The point I'm making is that the new user of the 'found thing' is the one with the artistic vision; more often than not, the originator doesn't give a damn, and one could argue that they have no right to give a damn either.

If you're going to lift huge chunks of Madonna or Sting and spin them into your track, the brown stuff will soon hit the ventilation equipment with a vengeance. However, using samples that were technically created by someone else but no longer have any artistic significance for that someone else, seems to me not only fair play, but actually complimentary. I often stand next to the TV during the news bulletins armed with my C1000 and an MD recorder, just in case some nice juicy vocal sound bite comes my way. Do I think that Sky or ITV should care a hoot if I subsequently have a chart crossover smash hit with a track that uses the sample? Definitely not. Their artistic interest in the actual few milliseconds of audio ceases to exist once the bulletin is transmitted. In law, they may ultimately have some kind of redress in respect of the use of broadcast material, but honestly, is the game worth their candle?

Consider another example: a drum loop is, at the end of the day, a drum loop, whether it's lifted from the first 16 bars of an old Stakker Humanoid vinyl 45, or whether it's programmed up from scratch on an 808 and 'grungelised'. The end result, when it's been imported into Cubase and had the merry kahoonas EQ'd out of it is much the same — no one actually owns a rhythm.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not writing a plagiarist's charter. To exploit the musical art of another person and pass it off as your own is, without doubt, both morally and legally reprehensible, in addition to being creatively unsatisfying. But audio clips that have no intrinsic value either musically or sonically in their original context are, I believe, fair game.

A case in point is the occasional use of a phrase from some ancient radio comedy program or a sentence from an Open University broadcast about Higher Mathematics. I used the expression "squeeze the number" from a really cheesy 1970s teaching tape on a track back in 1989! These things may find a niche in your own vision, and in using them you're definitely not stealing a creative idea, but actually giving rise to a new one.

Being neither a legal expert or a hardened campaigner in the Big George mould, I don't quite know what can be done about the legality of sampling. However, I hope that every owner of the ultimate copyright in audio material has enough common sense to recognise when they might be fulfiling the role of party-pooper by standing on their purely 'legal' rights.

About The Author

Chris Eccles produces a hard-edged dance genre at The Music Room Studio in the rural West of Ireland and releases on the KBO label. He caused controversy in the early '90s with his production of 'On the House' with Stuart Carbran, which used samples of Margaret Thatcher and others that were allegedly lifted from an official government tape of the proceedings in Parliament.

Published October 2002