Rhyming & Stealing: Let’s honor late Beastie with better copyright laws

Hip-hop icon Adam Yauch (MCA) of the Beastie Boys passed on Friday, leaving a legacy of advocacy and great music.

The albums of Yauch and his band taught suburban kids about malt liquor and dust, but were also a wizardly pastiche of music and culture — from Sly & the Family Stone to Mr. Ed to Alfred E. Neuman.

The Beasties were pioneers of remix culture, drawing on sound samples to share hundreds of references in a single album.

They also become reluctant pioneers in a series of copyright lawsuits. In one case that went to the Supreme Court, the Beasties were sued over a few seconds of flute music even after they paid to use it.

Scholars have recently questioned whether the band could even have made their landmark 1989 Paul’s Boutique album today. The increased cost of the samples and the cumbersome process to clear them means producing Beastie Boys style music has become impossible from a legal standpoint — even as it gets easier from a technological one.

Congress and the music industry could fix this problem by creating a quick and low-cost system for clearing samples. The current system (as the Beasties pointed out in this worthy Wired interview) is tedious and  loaded with lawyers and other intermediaries.

The law should also restore a de minimus defense for short samples and rewrite the oppressive statutory damages regime that can make a single copyright offense punishable by $150,000.

Good law should reflect and support quality artistic culture — not oppress the people who create that culture. In 1998, Congress passed a hideous law to honor mediocre musician Sonny Bono.  It should use MCA’s passing as an occasion to correct that mistake and honor a truly great musician instead.