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Breaking the Law with Digital Sampling

By Katie Ash — November 29, 2010 1 min read

This week, PBS independent documentary series Independent Lens is airing Copyright Criminals.

The film, which has accompanying curriculum materials that can be downloaded from the PBS website, talks about copyright law in the age of digital sampling, which became popular in the hip-hop movement during the mid-80s after the creation of technologies that made it easier to record and mash-up various artists’ work. The documentary features the hip-hop artists who pioneered this trend, such as De La Soul and Public Enemy, as well as the artists whose work they sampled, copyright lawyers, and researchers.

The problem is that copyright laws were written several decades after these technologies evolved, experts say. Today pretty much anyone can download free software to create mash-ups without needing a recording studio or fancy equipment. However, the law has not kept up, making any type of sampling a copyright infringement unless the song goes through sampling clearances, which are both time-consuming and, in some cases, incredibly expensive.

Relating pop music to copyright law, intellectual property law, and digital literacy etiquette should make this documentary a good watch for your students. Check your local listings to see it on a channel near you.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.