What happens when you mix together the Beatles' White Album with Jay-Z's Black Album? DJ Danger Mouse did just that and created the Grey Album, by mixing Jay-Z's vocals (taken from a CD of just the vocal tracks from the Black Album) over music tracks built using samples from the White Album. Rolling Stone calls it “the ultimate remix record.” Boston Globe music critic Renee Graham thinks that the Grey Album is “the most intriguing hip-hop album in recent memory.”
EMI, who owns the copyright in the Beatles sound recordings, has requested that Danger Mouse stop distributing the album and requested that web sites stop hosting Grey Album MP3’s. For a sampling of the press coverage, see BBC News: EMI blocks Beatles album remix, Wired News: Copyright Enters a Gray Area, and MTV News: Producer Of The Grey Album, Jay-Z/ Beatles Mash-Up, Gets Served. Illegal-Art.org continues to host MP3's of the Grey Album tracks.
Even before the era of recorded music, musicians would build on existing songs written by other artists. Recording artists cover standards and songs written by other songwriters. In order to allow recording artists to more easily record new versions of existing songs, the Copyright Act provides for a compulsory license to make and distribute phonorecords of non-dramatic musical works. 17 USC §115. The rise of hip-hop and DJ culture in music over the last 25 years or so has changed the way that artists create new music, by building on the work of earlier artists through direct audio sampling.
In the sampling era, the legal departments of record labels, particularly those that specialize in hip-hop or the other genres that sample heavily, spend significant amounts of time clearing samples for use on records.
Under current copyright law, the Grey Album is clearly illegal—the right to make derivative works is an exclusive right of the copyright holder. 17 USC §106(2). Because sampling has become so prevalent, perhaps copyright law needs to allow for more sampling.
Four approaches towards sampling are currently available for samplers: unlicensed sampling, ad-hoc licensing, fair use sampling and sampling from the public domain. Each of these carries significant drawbacks. One alternative may be to legislate a compulsory license for sampling. Another emerging alternative is for artists to preemptively license their work for sampling.
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