This video reproduction of Nate Harrison's installation, Can I Get An Amen? is a fascinating listen if you're at all interested in music, copyright or the cultural aspects of creativity. The project charts the life so far of a six-second drum beat known as the Amen Break, which originated in the 1969 soul song Amen Brother by The Winstons, and has gone on to be used as a sample in hundreds of musical reincarnations, from the early UK dance scene to present day car ads.

As I listened to the occasionally unrecognisable reinterpretations of the six-second-long beat, including a remix of Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love (sorry Jules), originally released the same year as Amen Brother, I felt a mild sense of outrage on behalf of the original creators of the beat. This feeling culminated as I learned that companies like Zero G Ltd. sold sample compilations that included the Amen Break, claiming it as their own original (and copyright protected) work. If you work in media the way I do, you might feel the same way.

But Harrison points out that The Winstons survived as a band to see their six-second creation take on this life of its own, and apparently chose to allow it to happen, such that today the riff resides in a sort of implicit state of public domain, despite being legally protected by at least two copyright claims (The Winstons and Zero G Ltd.).

As copyright protections are increasinly extended and tightened by those seeking to profit from music and other media, often the success of these companies ironically comes out of the sort of copyright flexibility exemplified by the history of the Amen Break. As this sort of flexibility is increasingly outlawed, will the creative landscape survive the imposed restriction that all work must be original work? And indeed, is any creative work truly and completely original?

Harrison sums it up beautifully in his project, and if you've read this far I'd encourage you to listen to it yourself, but he does borrow these very apt words from US Federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski:

Over-protecting intellectual property is as harmful as under-protecting it. Culture is impossible without a rich public domain. Nothing today, like nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new. Culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on the works of those who came before. Over-protection stifles the very creative forces it's supposed to nurture.

Creative Commons LogoI've always thought Creative Commons licensing ("some rights reserved") was a great idea, but this is the first time I've seriously considered its place in the work I do for a living, as opposed to the stuff I do "just for fun" (like my photos on Flickr). Perhaps our sense of accomplishment and ownership in a work---not to mention our ability to make a living by that work---need not come at the expense of others' freedom to build upon that work.