Since getting teased off the playground in grade school for not knowing who Slash was, I’ve never been much of a music aficionado. So if you had asked me yesterday if I’d ever heard of the Amen break, a six second drum solo from the b-side of a 1969 album released by The Winstons, I would have said “no” without hesitation. But I would have been wrong. In fact, we’ve all heard the Amen break many times, though I wouldn’t have known it but for this short film that provides the background for a cultural touchstone so ubiquitous it’s faded into the soundscape of everyday life.
Though a tad on the long side”I get the sense the narrator slowed his voice down for anonymity”this video provides a fascinating history of the Amen break’s transformation from B-side drum break to foundation sample of 80′s hip-hop to jungle dance beat to its modern incarnation as the background music in SUV commercials. Along the way, it demonstrates the power of data-sharing to create new genres of music, foster cultural movements and even contribute to the development of new economies. In doing so, it intersects many of the ideas of the open-source movement, such as those espoused by Copyleft, as well as the principle behind Nau’s decision not to license its fabric technologies, thereby making them available to competitors (through the individual fabric vendors) royalty-free.
As the film points out, copyright law (and in much the same way, patent law) exists to strike a balance between an individual’s right to profit from his or her own ideas and the collective benefit of sharing information and technology to create new ideas and technology. The Winstons’ decision not to pursue legal action over the Amen break clearly played a major role in its entering the public domain. But such voluntary waivers of rights certainly haven’t influenced policy. Since 1998, the balance has skewed far toward the rights of individual (and corporate) authorship: The Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension Act extended copyright terms to 70 years for individuals and corporate authorship to 120 years. Under such laws, the Amen break wouldn’t enter the public domain until 2039. Which makes me wonder: if those six seconds had been protected so stringently, what in the past 38 years wouldn’t have been created?