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Conecting the Dots; or, how Lessig is like Chuck D

I just finished reading Lessig’s Free Culture and am in the middle of Vaidhyanathan’s Copyrights and Copywrongs . I was reading this morning on the stair master, when a thought struck me.

In “Copyrights and Copywrongs” Vaidhyanathan writes about the evolution of rap music in the 1980’s and 1990’s and how rap music interacted with judicial rulings (or the lack thereof) and the interpretation of copyright law. In particular, the act of sampling is what Vaidhyanathan focuses on, discussing the question “[W]hy do rap artists sample in the first place? What meansings are they imparting?” He goes on to answer this in the following paragraph. “Sometimes…it can be a political act – a way of crossing the system, challenging expectations, or confronting the status quo.” “Sampling is a way an artist declares ‘Hey, I dug this, too.’ It helps form a direct connection with listeners.” The genre of rap music and the act of sampling can be traced to African American and Carribean musical influences. “[O]ften when a reggae record is released, hundreds of dif-ferent versions of the same rythym and melody will be released in the subsequent weeks. Every new version will slightly modify the original tune.”

Compare this to Lessig’s discussion of the (ongoing) evolution of blogging in America. When discussing the role of the blog in America, Lessig states, “[T]here are many who use [blogs] to engage in public discourse. Discussing matters of public import, criticizing others who are mistaken in their views, criticizing politicians about the decisions they make, offering solutions to problems we all see.” How do blogs effectively criticize, comment and improve the general discourse? “The best of the blog entries are relatively short; they point directly to words used by others, cirticizing with or adding to them.” Sort of like rap, huh? Same rythym, same melody, different tune.

Lessig goes on to briefly discuss the interaction of copyright with this burgeoning form of commentary and journalism. He quotes Dave Winer saying, “we will be the last thing that gets shut down [due to infringement].” While that is encouraging, we should not forget what happened to the evolution of rap music as an art form. “What sampling did occur in the late 1990s was non-transgressive, nonthreatening, and too often clumsy and obvious. The signifying rapper had lost his voice.” (Vaidhyanathan). We as bloggers are “sampling” the culture and world around us, adding our “samples” to the greater discourse and body of knowledge. And the quality and growth of culture around us will be harmed if our commentary and discourse goes the way of the rapper.