Copyright questions pop up in the most unexpected yet ordinary places. I got in a cab late last night at the Pittsburgh airport. As I sat down, the driver, an African-American man who looked to be younger than I am by maybe 10 years, turned down a hip hop track that he was playing very loudly. I’ll bet that’s not your style, he said. I replied, sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not, but it rarely is at 1 a.m. on a Monday evening. That let to a brief exchange about my knowledge of hip hop. Into techno?, he asked. I misheard. No, I didn’t know Tech N9ne (the artist on the track). But I did know Wiz Khalifa, Pittsburgh’s big name rapper. Laughter came from behind the wheel; Tech N9ne, he explained, was an even bigger deal than Wiz. I explained that because I teach copyright law, I pay at least a little attention to a lot of different genres of music.
A certain bona fide identity having been confirmed, at that the driver first did what some people do when I say that I teach copyright law. He metaphorically climbed into a protective stance, as if I were going to come after him for infringement. I said no, it’s cool; I’m not going to bring anything down on him. That let to a wide-ranging 30-minute conversation about sampling and local hip hop production. My cab driver, it turned out, has a burgeoning career as a producer/engineer for local rappers, including his nephews and cousins, and he had a lot of thoughtful, musically educated questions about what’s OK and what’s not when it comes to being inspired by sources, to using sources, and to sampling sources. He knows ASCAP and BMI and uses bandcamp.com, but he wanted to know how you go about making sample-based music and distributing it legally.
We didn’t come to any conclusions. I left him with my business card and a note recommending Creative License, the recent book about sampling by Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola. He left me with a new appreciation for just how deeply our screwed up music copyright system is affecting emerging artists. (If you’re mixing something in your cousin’s basement, you’re not on a label, and you’re worried about clearing rights to what you’ve borrowed or quoted, what do you do?) He played some tracks from a mixtape (a burned CD, in truth) that he had produced for his cousin, a gospel rapper. I emerged into the dark of my home newly frustrated by laws that are meant to enable creativity, and inspired by the extent to which the deep recesses of creative culture refuse to let those laws keep them down.