TufAmerica suing Frank Ocean is ridiculous

Maybe, like me, you’re a fan of “Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean featuring Earl Sweatshirt.

Maybe, like me, you were especially delighted by the part at 1:59, when Frank unexpectedly quotes “Real Love” by Mary J. Blige.

A “record label” (really a group of lawyers) called TufAmerica heard that quote too, and now they’re suing Frank Ocean for sampling their property without permission. TufAmerica owns 3.15% of “Real Love.” They acquired this stake by suing Mary J. Blige, whose song samples “Top Billin'” by Audio Two.

Wait, except TufAmerica doesn’t own “Top Billin'” either. They own “Impeach the President” by the Honey Drippers, the opening bars of which have been sampled in thousands of songs, “Top Billin'” among them.

At this point, you may be getting confused. Isn’t that a rather long and convoluted chain of musical borrowings to be suing over? Audio Two didn’t do a straight sample of “Impeach the President,” they flipped it — they sliced the sample into individual drum hits and reshuffled them into a very different rhythm. Still, they made use of someone else’s recording, so, fine. But what does that have to do with Mary J. Blige? It’s distinctly possible that neither she nor her produces had never even heard of the Honey Drippers when they sampled Audio Two.

But that isn’t the dumbest part of TufAmerica’s case. The dumbest part is that Frank Ocean’s quote (not sample) of Mary J. Blige makes no reference to the beat at all. He quotes the lyrics and the rhythmic contour of her melody, with different pitches and underlying harmony. Really, if anybody deserves to be making copyright claims over a groove here, it’s Elton John. The first time I heard “Super Rich Kids,” I thought, oh cool, Frank sampled the beat from “Benny and the Jets.”

A quick Google search reveals dozens of lawsuits that TufAmerica is involved in. The company is a notorious “sample troll,” like the equally odious Bridgeport Music. Their sole purpose as corporate entities is to buy up copyrights of old songs and then sue people who have sampled them. Sometimes they do this against the wishes of the original creators — George Clinton is delighted that the rappers have embraced P-Funk, but Bridgeport Music owns his copyrights.

Please do not feed the trolls

Even if you don’t care about hip-hop, or sample-based music in general, the practice of sample trolling should concern you. According to the US Constitution, the point of copyright law is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” TufAmerica is not promoting the Progress of anything. If anything, they’re creating pressures that stifle the useful Arts. I’m hardly a wild-eyed radical for believing this — here are some think pieces on the harmful effects of sample trolling by the New York Times, Slate, and The Atlantic.

There is so much wrong with this lawsuit. Why should TufAmerica go after Frank Ocean in particular? According to WhoSampled.com, the opening of “Impeach the President” is the most-sampled breakbeat in history. Pieces of it appear in at least one commercial recording every year since 1987. Is it because Frank Ocean happens to be really popular right now, rather than his being the most egregious transgression against TufAmerica’s rights?

It gets worse. TufAmerica has a music imprint, Tuff City, which sells vinyl copies of “Impeach the President” on their online store. The page copy touts the track’s significance in hip-hop history:

Roy C and the Honeydrippers’ “Impeach The President” is widely considered to be the most sampled track in the history of hip hop. Artists such as 2Pac, Slick Rick, Nas, N.W.A, Ice Cube, Eric B & Rakim, Audio Two, Common and, many, many more.

The break at “Impeach the President” is virtually a blueprint for hip hop… the kind of track that broke big in the old school scene of the late 70s, and which is still bumping speakers today!

I guess no one in their marketing department has heard of irony.

CMU points out a further irony: “Real Love” was originally released on Uptown Records, which was later absorbed by Frank Ocean’s label, Universal, in the late 1990s. This means that Universal probably owns the majority rights of the track it’s currently accused of illegally sampling.

I know that we need to have rules about intellectual property. But shouldn’t those rules make sense? Unless the drummers who played the classic breakbeats happen to be listed as songwriters, they don’t get any money when people license samples of them. Clyde Stubblefield isn’t entitled to a dime when people license the Funky Drummer break. Why should a bunch of lawyers who have never played or recorded a note in their lives be able to extract money in situations like this? Why do we tolerate this kind of parasitism in our creative economy? Sample trolls are destroying America.

What are some possible innovations for Delicious going forward?

This is a melancholy topic for me. There was a time when my Delicious network feed was the first site I looked at in the morning, my favorite source of news and serendipitous new knowledge, and the primary repository for my short-form writing. Now I barely ever use it.

I started out using Delicious for its intended purpose, bookmarking. Then I discovered that between the tags and the notes field, it was a spectacular notetaking tool. Over time, I built up a network of around a hundred other people. My Delicious use became 10% archiving and annotating links I planned to refer to later, and 90% social linkblogging. The experience became almost Quora-like.

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The Delicious debacle

It’s been an emotional week for me and my fellow Delicious lovers. The hysteria began with a slide leaked from an internal presentation at Yahoo, Delicious’ corporate parent, saying the service was among the ones slated to be “sunsetted.”

After Techcrunch published the slide, the web lit up with the rumor that Delicious would be shut down. It took Yahoo a full twenty-four hours to respond, an eternity in internet time, and when their official statement did finally come, it didn’t exactly put anyone’s mind at ease. They’re keeping Delicious live for the time being, but they plan to… do what? Sell it? The language is vague.

I’ve loved Delicious since I started using it — here’s my full-length rhapsody on why it’s so valuable to me. Watching Yahoo neglect it has been painful, since there’s a lot of untapped potential. For example, two months before Twitter launched, Delicious rolled its Network feature, which lets you subscribe to other users’ bookmarks. It’s basically a more tightly curated and better annotated version of Twitter. I started going back through my bookmarks to see who else was saving them and following everyone who was coming up with interesting tags and notes. The result is my list of a hundred or so Delicious users who consistently post interesting, useful and entertaining links. I look at my Delicious network feed first thing in the morning, before any news site, or Twitter or anything, because its signal to noise ratio is superb. Yahoo had an opportunity to create a robust social network around the Network feature, and they blew it.

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Bitter Sweet Symphony

One of the biggest copyright failures of copyright law ever is the The Verve’s song “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”

The distinctive string sample comes from an orchestral arrangement of “The Last Time” by The Rolling Stones.

Doesn’t sound much like the Verve, does it? Here’s the Andrew Oldham Orchestra‘s version, the sample will jump right out at you twenty-five seconds in.

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Biz Markie gets the copyright smackdown

Biz Markie. Who doesn’t love him? Our broken intellectual property system, that’s who.


Biz belongs to the period in the late eighties and early nineties that many hip-hop heads refer to as the golden age. The tracks of this period were dense with samples and quotes, most of which were used without permission. Biz was no exception.

The golden age came to an end in 1992, when Biz was sued for illegally sampling “Alone Again (Naturally) ” by Gilbert O’Sullivan.

“Alone Again (Naturally)” is a fine song, but it’s not spectacularly original. The chord progressions, melodic motifs and verbal imagery are all popular music boilerplate. The rhyme schemes are mostly cliches like cried/died. Gilbert O’Sullivan was the first person to use this exact combination of standard musical modules, but the modules themselves can be heard in zillions of other songs. I’m giving you all this music criticism because I think it’s ironic that Biz could be sued for stealing from a song that is itself assembled from other pre-existing ideas.

Here’s the song Biz was sued over.

Biz uses a loop of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s piano and a quote from the chorus. He also uses the frequently-sampled beat from “Impeach The President” by The Honeydrippers. Biz’s song follows the time-honored hip-hop strategy of semi-ironically quoting a well-known chorus and writing new verses around it, all over a funkier beat.

Biz’s label, a subsidiary of Warner Bros, attempted to get clearance to use the piano sample from Grand Upright Music, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s publishing company. When Grand Upright denied the request, Biz and his people went ahead and used it anyway. In response, Grand Upright Music filed an injunction. The decision in Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. ruled emphatically in Grand Upright’s favor. The decision was the death knell of sample-intensive hip-hop at the commercial level. Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy began his opinion in the case by quoting the Bible:

“Thou shalt not steal.” has been an admonition followed since the dawn of civilization. Unfortunately, in the modern world of business this admonition is not always followed. Indeed, the defendants in this action for copyright infringement would have this court believe that stealing is rampant in the music business and, for that reason, their conduct here should be excused. The conduct of the defendants herein, however, violates not only the Seventh Commandment, but also the copyright laws of this country… [I]t is clear that the defendants knew that they were violating the plaintiff’s rights as well as the rights of others. Their only aim was to sell thousands upon thousands of records. This callous disregard for the law and for the rights of others requires not only the preliminary injunction sought by the plaintiff but also sterner measures.”

Judge Duffy concluded by referring the matter to the US Attorney, recommending prosecution of Biz et al for criminal copyright infringement.

This ruling makes me sad for several reasons. First of all, Judge Duffy wasn’t in complete possession of the facts. If you choose to define sampling as “stealing,” then stealing was in fact rampant in the music business, and not just among hip-hop artists. Rock and roll was built on uncredited borrowing from blues and R&B musicians. The Beatles used unauthorized samples of copyrighted materials in their artsier tracks like “Revolution 9.” Experiments with tape collage by the classical avant-garde go back to the fifties.

I also take issue with Judge Duffy’s equation of sampling and stealing. There has never been a wholly original piece of music. For that matter, there has never been a completely new idea of any kind that didn’t draw extensively on its intellectual context. Sampling is a novel technological practice, but it’s a seamless extension of the way music has always been made. All creativity consists of recombining and repurposing fragments of existing works into new ones. I would go so far as to say that there is no other kind of artistic practice.

I’m not completely unsympathetic to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s position. I wish that some kind of licensing or profit-sharing agreement could have been reached in this particular case. But where does it end? Would we require Gilbert O’Sullivan to pay every previous user of his harmonic and melodic cliches, and every previous user of the cried/died rhyme? Would there be any kind of art at all if we did?

Meanwhile, I detect more than a tinge of racism in Judge Duffy’s ruling, and in the cultural consensus that produced it. This article from the UCLA/Columbia Copyright Infringement Project is sympathetic to Biz’s legal position, but it slips in some ignorant music criticism:

[A]part from the gibberish chanted over O’Sullivan’s ostinato, there is nothing original in Biz Markie’s song or his recording except his performance of it.

Biz doesn’t enunciate his rhymes very clearly, but there’s a big difference between mumbly delivery of slang and “gibberish.” Maybe the slight wasn’t have a racial motivation, but it’s hard to imagine why else the writer would be so dismissive of the hip-hop art form.

Personally, I value Biz Markie’s music much more highly than Gilbert O’Sullivan’s. I resent the chilling effect that copyright law has on sampling culture, which I regard as the a rich and vibrant method of musical expression. A big part of the pleasure of hip-hop is encountering a familiar sample in a new song. It mixes the warm thrill of recognition with the strangeness of a novel context. Hip-hop has this wonderful ability to make well-worn cliches fresh again.

Even when it’s unauthorized, sampling generally helps the sampled artists more than it harms them in the long run. It keeps the sampled artist culturally relevant to new generations of listeners who otherwise wouldn’t care. I would never have even heard of Gilbert O’Sullivan if Biz hadn’t paid him the compliment of sampling him.

Just for fun, here’s Biz’s best-known song. Like “Alone Again”, the chorus quotes an older song, “You Got What I Need” by Freddie Scott.

Boo copyright. Yay quotation.

Update: Kevin Nottingham posted all the samples from Biz’ I Need A Haircut on his blog. Download and remix to your heart’s content.

Further update: the web site for the documentary Copyright Criminals links to this post.

The Minus World and the Blue Screen Of Death

When the computer crashes, it seems like it’s frozen. Actually, it’s still working as fast as usual. It only appears to be stuck because it isn’t responding to you. The computer is too busy to take input because it’s in a loop, executing the same short list of instructions over and over.

Computers have become so fast that you can’t see what they’re doing on an instruction-by-instruction basis, so it’s hard to get a feel for what’s going on in a looping failure.  Fortunately, Super Mario Bros has a famous bug known as the Minus World that lets you study an infinite loop in an entertainingly interactive form. Continue reading