While the extent of my early Beastie Boys enthusiasm was tempered by my brother’s incessant replays of License to Ill, it was hard to avoid the group during parts of the 90s if you even glanced at the MTV (yeah, this was when they still played music videos, etc., etc.). The passing of Adam Yauch, aka MCA, led to all the expected tributes from most of the expected places. This cover by Coldplay helps introduce a technology angle to this legacy.
The technology angle here concerns sampling, using bits and pieces of other songs in new compositions (while more extensive of an effort than a cover, I consider them of a kind). While the Beastie Boys weren’t the first to make use of the technique (grafting new lyrics onto old tunes goes back a long time), they are considered innovators in the modern era. They are certainly pioneers in the lawsuits over sampling. This trend, regrettably, continues to this day, with a lawsuit against the group filed just before Yauch’s passing. The suit concerns samples used on License to Ill (1986) and Paul’s Boutique (1989), so there will be statute of limitations issues in addition to any legal questions about where the line between fair use and infringement exists where samples are concerned. The role advances in technology have played in detecting the use of samples is an interesting side question.
People much more inventive and engaged with the topic than I have addressed the challenge increasingly restrictive conceptions of fair use place on the generation of our culture. The conventional wisdom is that the extensive sampling used by the Beastie Boys over 20 years ago could not be legally released today. Girl Talk and similar sampling-oriented artists are out there testing this assertion on the regular, but I do think that the increase in copyright enforcement has had a chilling effect on the pastiches, parodies and other forms of cultural re-use and remixing that depending on re-interpreting the world around us.