It turns out you might want to think twice before making that mixtape—just ask Kendrick Lamar. Last week it was reported that two jazz musicians—Eric Reed and Willie Jones III—were suing Lamar for using unauthorized samples in his 2011 hit "Rigamortis." According to Reed and Jones, "Rigamortis" is nothing more than a looped sample of their own tune "The Thorn," which was released on their 2010 album, The Next Phase.
While lawsuits over samples are nothing new, this particular one grabbed my attention for several reasons. First was the obvious nature of the plagiarism. If you listen to the tracks side by side, it's painfully easy to see that without Kendrick's rhymes, "Rigamortis" is basically a remix of "The Thorn."
The second thing that struck me was the fact that such a blatant act of plagiarism wasn't acted upon for over three years. One could argue that Reed and Jones were simply building their case, but I think it's more likely that they simply hadn't come across the track until now. The fact that "The Thorn" could hide out for that long in a popular track and go unnoticed by its composers may seem ridiculous, but it makes sense given the challenges facing today's music industry.
The increasing ease and ubiquity of sampling has made it nearly impossible for musicians to control their content. Once a song is released, it can pop up almost anywhere. At the same time, the sheer volume of available content has made it increasingly difficult for producers to successfully attribute and compensate the original source of every sample. I'm not letting Kendrick off the hook—I'm merely suggesting that it makes sense, given this reality, why a young MC might not press his producer too hard on where he acquired a particular sample.
Our culture is one of rampant reappropriation. Spend 10 seconds on BuzzFeed and you'll see what I mean. At its best, this creates a more connected and self-aware world, but at its worst, it leads to a complete breakdown of creative ownership. Yes, there are laws against plagiarism, but the sheer volume of digital content makes these laws very difficult to enforce. Music is trickiest of all in this respect—while you can directly search for a piece of text, the only way to truly recognize plagiarized music is to hear it.
Whatever side of the issue you take, it's clear that today's media landscape is still (pardon the cliché) somewhat of a "Wild West." Intellectual property laws are there, but the onus is still largely on the individual to actively seek out and take action against plagiarizers. It's hard to imagine what kinds of systemic changes would fix this, especially while providing all the necessary safeguards for freedom of expression.
Sampling should of course continue to flourish, but at the same time, those who notice or have concerns about plagiarism must be vigilant. Similarly, the global community of musicians should never hesitate to publicly out a track or even a specific sample that causes them concern. The culture needs to change from the ground up.
David Ecker is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. Slightly Off Key runs alternate Thursdays.