Is Sampling A Crime?

 |  November 26, 2010

While many rappers choose to personify themselves as hardened criminals, we never hear their producers undertake the same tone.  The 2009 documentary, Copyright Criminals, closely examines the art of sampling in an attempt to determine if certain beatmakers are legitimate musicians/engineers or mere outlaws.  The documentary, which is poised for national exposure via PBS, picks up in the 1980s when artists such as De La Soul and Public Enemy brought the art form to the forefront with overt samples from The Turtles (“Transmitting Live From Mars“) and James Brown (“Fight The Power“).  Other iconic samplers such as Pete Rock and El-P speak throughout the hour-long documentary.  In addition George Clinton, Biz Markie, Bobbito Garcia, Aesop Rock, DJ Q-Bert and Saul Williams appear in Copyright Criminals.


In the trailer featured below, Ability (the late Eyedea’s producer/deejay) compares sampling records to “hav[ing] all these artists and they’re in my band.”  Focusing on legality issues, the documentary profiles several legal experts as well as Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown’s studio drummer.  In the documentary Stubblefield remarks, “I didn’t know anything about sampling until people came up and said some other artist is using your drum pattern…So many groups have sampled my stuff…They say I’m the world’s number one sampled drummer; I haven’t got a penny for it yet though.”  What’s even more intriguing about Stubblefield’s case is that James Brown (or the rightful owners of his publishing) stand to profit from Stubblefield’s drum samples because they paid him to play.  The instrumentalist will likely never receive compensation for their samples once they are cleared for use.


Throughout the years, everyone from Yeezy to Weezy has been accused of copyright infringement for the use of samples on their albums.  George Clinton asserts that in order to make music you must pay for each instrument, so why not pay for samples?  You can get a closer look at this controversial subject when PBS airs Copyright Criminals as part of their Independent Lens series on November 29th.  Check your local listings for show times.  If you cannot wait, the documentary is also available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes, or you can take part in your own copyright violations and find the film for download…