In the wake of the $7.3 million lawsuit against Pharell and Robin Thicke for Marvin Gaye plagiarism, the issue of how much artists and their estates are legally entitled to for copyright infringement has sparked debate.
RZA, who was one of the keynote speakers at SXSW, used the recent verdict as a talking point. He said there should be restrictions on how much money artists can recover after parts of their songs have been sampled without permission – especially if the money may not be directly going to them.
RZA said, “Art is something that’s made to inspire the future. If you utilize somebody’s artistic expression blatantly, to where it’s an identifiable thing, then there should be some sort of compensation to the person who inspires you.”
RZA also said that an artist becomes an instrument when they’re sampled: “Even though I use his portion as an instrument—because the sampler is an instrument—he should not be able to come in and take 100 percent of my song.” He further suggested there be a cap on how much artists can recover for being sampled: “Fifty percent is the most.”
RZA referenced his own copyright infringement case back in 2013 when he was sued for sampling from the ‘70s Japanese film, Wandering Ginza Butterfly.
“I’ve been in situations where I’ve sampled something and the original copyright holder took 90 percent. That means they ignored all the programming, drumming, keyboard playing I played on top of it. They ignored every lyric, every hook, everything that we built to make it a song. And we wound up selling more copies than the sample version—but yet they took 90 percent of the song,” recalled RZA.
It isn’t easy to put a number on what the cut should be for sampling. Some cases enhance the artist being sampled and others enhance the artist doing the sampling, and either way you cut it “copying is the highest form of flattery,” according to Charles Caleb Colton.
The recent verdict between Pharelle, Thicke and Marvin Gaye’s family will prompt intelligent artists to tread more carefully going forward.