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Is it borrowing or stealing?

Written: November 20, 2007

What would it mean to me to have my own work borrowed, remixed, or reworked? A distinction has to be made, of course, between appropriation and outright plagiarism. I doubt anyone reasonable would disagree that simply taking somebody else’s work and slapping your own name on it is just plain wrong. Most cases are far less clear-cut.

If someone were to use my music, the three most important things to me would be (in order): attribution, permission, and compensation.

Attribution — I figure that if you like my music well enough to use it, let folks know where it came from. Recognition is an important element of being an artist, for both practical and emotional reasons. There’s nothing difficult about giving a shout-out to art you enjoy.

Permission — it would upset me if someone were to simply assume that what I’ve created is there for the taking. If that person were to simply ask, I would almost certainly grant permission; and if that person were to assume permission, I would almost certainly be inclined to deny it. It’s a matter of courtesy.

Compensation — if you’re going to make money using something I’ve made, I feel that I should see some of it. No, I’m not in this to earn money; but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t ask for it.

Well, what would it mean to “use my music”? For me, it means using a recording of a performance of my music as a soundtrack, sampling it as part of a larger work, or remixing it. There are more nebulous ways of using it with which I’m less concerned — much of my own work finds its inspiration by taking a melody, a bass line, a fragment of a motive, from other people’s music, and so I would find it hard to criticize others for doing the same. And it can be difficult to parse out our own influences — I’ve written pieces and not realized what they were drawing from until years after the fact; but I always try to point out the sources of which I’m conscious.
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That said, as a consumer, there is music I adore and admire that clearly violates those three elements. In particular, The Grey Album, A Night at the Hip-Hopera, and much of John Oswald‘s work, all of which are comprised entirely of samples used without permission.

The fact that these artists made something unique and singular by fusing these different elements together trumps the question of whether it was right to do so. That is to say, the fact that these works have real artistic worth is the primary issue; any other issues are relevant only if the artwork sucks. Is that hypocritical? I don’t know.
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Perhaps the real issue is the difference between appropriation and exploitation. The line between them will always be fuzzy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to help influence on which side you land…and consent and transparency go a long way towards that. But even without, creating something that couldn’t exist if not for the sources you use, yet that any individual source couldn’t approach on its own, might be good enough.