Well, this is just sad. When we reported the unfortunate news of Adam "MCA" Yauch's death, we pointed to the EFF's call for an appropriate tribute to the beloved artist: an end to the legal war on sampling. The Beastie Boys produced some of the earliest sample-based music—including their seminal Paul's Boutique, widely seen as one of the best and most influential albums ever—just before the courts started coming down hard on sampling, more or less entirely tossing out the concepts of fair use, transformative work and de minimis copying that should protect samplers in many cases. Most experts agree that, today, an album like Paul's Boutique could never be officially released, since licensing the hundreds of samples used would cost exorbitant amounts—but that hasn't diminished the album's importance, nor has it stopped countless producers from continuing to work with unlicensed samples and release their work as bootlegs. In other words, the law does not match reality: sampling is a valid and vital form of creativity that can and will continue, even though nowadays it's either impossibly pricey or just illegal. What better tribute could there be to one of the fathers of sample-based music than to finally officially legitimize it as the important (and amazing) art form that it is?
Instead, we get the opposite. AllHipHop reports that, in a bout of incredibly unlucky timing, music label Tuf America filed a copyright lawsuit against the Beastie Boys the day before Yauch's passing. At issue are samples from Licensed to Ill and Paul's Boutique, which Tuf America claims were taken from a handful of their songs.
Tuf America said they did a thorough sound analysis of the tracks in question and concluded that the Beastie Boys illegally incorporated elements of the songs without permission.
To complicate the matter, Tuf America claims The Beasties and Capitol Records continue to profit off the album, by way of anniversary and commemorative releases of Licensed To Ill and Paul’s Boutique, which was released in 1989.
Tuf America is seeking a trial to determine the amount of punitive and exemplary damages, if any.
One would think that the simple fact that a "thorough sound analysis" was necessary means this is clearly a case of transformative work, but unfortunately, as mentioned, the courts have pretty much completely eliminated that defense when it comes to sampling. Moreover, where has Tuf America been this whole time? The Beastie Boys albums came out in 1986 and 1989, and now, a quarter-century later, Tuf America is claiming they deserve a payout? Their legal argument will, by necessity, rely on significant rulings that came out after the albums, which were released under the common sense assumption of the time: that sampling was creative and transformative art that didn't require a license.
The timing here is almost certainly just bad luck, and Tuf America must be rather worried about the PR nightmare this will surely incite. However I can't say I feel that bad for them: even setting aside Yauch's death, I find their actions despicable. They are attacking a piece of classic art just to cash in on someone else's success. If the Tuf samples were really so integral to the success of the Beastie Boys albums, then they would have had plenty of opportunities to capitalize on that over the last two decades. Instead they chose a legalistic get-rich-quick scheme. Shameful.
Last month, when 50 Cent was sued over a sample on a free mixtape he released, I asked when hip-hop's biggest stars will start speaking up about copyright and educating their fans about the fact that the music they love and respect is, in the eyes of the courts, illegal. This new incident might just kick off that process—nobody is going to be happy about what Tuf America is doing, and a lot of people who had no idea that sampling is illegal are going to see the coverage of this lawsuit (which is sure to be far greater than for your average sampling lawsuit) and discover just how broken the law is.
I truly hope this confluence of events can kick-start the necessary momentum to start fixing copyright law and getting the courts to recognize the validity (and fair use/transformative aspects) of sampling. This is not about capitalizing on Yauch's death—he and the Beastie Boys helped open the world's eyes to a rich and unique new approach to music that informed everything that came after, with samples finding their way into countless genres beyond hip-hop and becoming, essentially, an exciting new instrument that musicians everywhere started teaching themselves to play. The introduction of sampling was as important as that of distorted guitars or electric keyboards, and changed music just as much—but since day one, legal respect for sampling has been in steady decline and is now virtually zilch. It would be a wonderful thing if, amidst the tragedy of Yauch's death, we were able to help him give the world one more gift: a new attitude about sampling that will allow the next generation's Beastie Boys to pursue their artistic ideas without fear of being randomly sued 20 years later.