Hip Hop and it’s Relation to Lyrical and Musical Plagiarism and Copyright Laws

Plagiarism, as defined in the Oxford English dictionary, is the action of taking someone else’s work and pretending it is your own work [1]. Musical plagiarism has gone through many perceptions from the earlier centuries to the recent times. Musical plagiarism can occur lyrically or instrumentally, when someone steals someone else’s components and represents it as his or her own. One of the first instances of plagiarism was during the times shortly after Mozart and Beethoven, where the similar ideas that first occurred to them were used in the songs by composers Mendelssohn and Wagner. Since the world was convinced of the integrity of these men, they weren’t charged with plagiarism and the similarities were considered to be pure chance resemblance [2]. In the 20th Century, plagiarism became more noticeable and the concept of chance resemblance was no longer feasible. The legal concept of copyright law was established to promote science and the useful arts. The music industry also falls into the purview of the copyright laws. Internet is a double edged sword in the music industry. On one hand it has popularized many genres of music and increased accessibility to larger variety of music. But on the other hand it has become easy for music to be copied without paying homage to the original artist. This paper proposes the argument: As long as homage and credit are given to the original creators, nothing is plagiarized. An early example on unethical usage and clear case of plagiarism where the system did not react legally or economically is illustrated along with the landmark case where copyright laws were applied in the hip hop industry and its impact are used to illustrate the thesis of the paper and propose the intended opinion.

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Plagiarism ambiguity in Hip Hop

Hip Hop first began as an underground culture in New York City in the 1970s and one of the important factors in its origin is Deejaying. DJ’s such as Kool Herc found various ways to edit and sample the music they were playing, with the help of turntables, so that it would be more appealing to their audiences. This was followed by the addition of spoken word elements to the music, with the usage of the microphone, which became known as MC-ing. Various artists such as Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash created pioneering works both audibly and vocally [3]. Then, the drum machine began to be commonly used in hip hop production (thanks to Bambaata) and this pioneered the process of beat making in hip hop. This was later accompanied by the usage of the sampler and the synthesizer which could be used to sample music more efficiently [4]. From then on, hip hop opened many opportunities for the creation of new music based on previous musical work. But some of these opportunities brought about controversy. Deejaying(sampling) in particular, is an integral element of hip hop. While sampling, hip-hop producers usually insert segments of recorded music into what they are creating. They also truncate samples to take only the useful sections and syncopate the sample so that it loops throughout the entire song. Sampling can be done instrumentally or lyrically. Powerful juxtapositions were created by hip-hop producers by re-combining and re-contextualizing sources [5]. A good example of re-contextualizing is the famous words from the All in the family sitcom about a white American bigot, Those were the days. These words were sampled into the Digital Tears song by GM Grimm. Grimm used these lyrics to convey a black man’s world of crime, drugs, prison, and desperation. The context of the original source to the one that it was used in is completely different. Hip-hop sampling is not mere cutting and pasting existing material into your creation, but to redefine it to suit your context and musical creation.

In hip hop, plagiarism is defined as stealing another person’s unpublished lyrics or instrumental production without giving them any credit. To equate sampling with plagiarism is not acceptable, because sampling uses the sources to create new meanings. Sampling is done with published musical work, but the introduction of the legal concept of copyright introduces more complexity in the distinction between sampling and plagiarism.

The famous philosopher Michael Foucault stated that he did not use quotations or citations from the previous famous philosophers (eg: Marx) when he used their arguments to build his own ones in a recognizable manner. He expected the reader to be familiar with those arguments and be able to recognize them when they are read [5]. Similarly, sampling in hip hop is intended for the listener to recognize the effort to create new music that is inspired by old music. Hip Hop producers and MC’s clearly do not intend to steal other people’s work and not give them any credit, but controversies can still arise due to copyright law. Hip hop culture is fosters on this ethical code of sampling from within the community.

Copyright, which first originated in 1640 in Great Britain, is a form of property which can be bought and sold like any other. If a new work is to be built from a previous one, the previous work must be purchased in the sense that its original creator must permit the new creator to use his work in the building of his work [6]. Sampling infringes the copyrights on the original composition which involve whether licensing the sample from the copyright holders or risking legal action. In order to prevent legal implication, the new artist needs to use pre-cleared samples or needs to get copyrights from the original artist for its usage. Copyrights need to be obtained for the musical composition and the sound recording from the songwriter and the production house.

In the early 2000’s the creation of the internet added more ambiguity and complexity to this matter. This is owing to the fact that various materials are easily available to any user. Artists can easily upload their creations and these creations can be conveniently found by other artists who are looking for sources. Certain Websites like Youtube have become the common destination for new artist to find samples. Since the emergence of MP3 files, a significant amount of music can be freely downloaded by a wide variety of users at no charge, and so the process of piracy has become considerably more widespread. Musical content is occasionally available at a significantly low price from platforms such as Spotify (paid subscription) and Amazon (purchase) [7]. To prevent copyright violations and plagiarism, certain artists such as Jay-Z remove their musical work from these platforms and distribute their work from their own platforms at higher prices along with copyright license agreement.

Illustrative cases

This paper illustrates two cases with each attempting to show the evolution of hip-hop culture with respect to sampling and plagiarism. Hip hop music is so dependent on sampling, and making it artist’s version of music and expression. Since sampling was an accepted norm in hip-hop this example though being a clear cut case on plagiarism in the hip hop industry was not acted upon legally: The Grandmaster Caz and The Sugarhill gang. Rapper’s Delight was a great hip hop success and was created by a house band called the Sugarhill Gang. The Sugarhill Gang was made up of three MCs who had no street credibility. Sylvia Robinson (the owner of Sugarhill Records) put the group together. . Hank, who became a member of the Sugarhill Gang used to be the manager of Grandmaster Caz’s (then known as Casanova Fly) hip hop group ‘The Mighty Force’, stole the lyrics from a book given to him by Grandmaster Caz and repeated the same words in the second verse of the Sugarhill gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Such unauthorized borrowing of lyrics is abhorrence in hip hop culture, referred to pejoratively as biting.[3] The second verse of rapper’s delight was made by inauthentic practices. These unethical method falls into the exact definition of plagiarism. Even though people within the hip hop community did not approve of this, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ demand with the audience became clear due to its compelling, fresh and controversial approach. This paved hip hop and rap music into a fungible commodity, where the boundaries of plagiarism are obscure.

The second example is focused on the court case which shook the hip hop industry and created new norms in the copyright world for hip-hop: Grand Upright Music Limited v Warner Brothers Records. In this case, the hip hop artist Biz Markie was sued by the singer Gilbert O’ Sullivan for sampling his song ‘Alone Again (Naturally). This was a sad song about the death of his parents which featured the piano predominantly. Biz Markie took the harmonizing piano chords along with the exact sound recording from the song and overlapped it with his rap music. According to Biz Markie this was an acceptable norm in the hip-hop culture where you sample from old music. The court ruled that sampling without permission can qualify as copyright infringement. The judgment changed the hip hop music industry, requiring that any future music sampling be preapproved by the original copyright owners to avoid a lawsuit. [5] Judge Duffy’s ruling in this case was critiqued by many and many opinioned that the judge ignored the fair use defense and categorized hip-hop sampling with theft. This ruling had the most negative view of sampling and also created a lot of limitation on new sound compositions.

Synthesis and Analysis

Prior to the historical case ‘Grand Upright Music Limited v Warner Brothers Records’ copyright laws on sampling was ambiguous, but this case changed these common practices. All subsequent cases on copyright infringement which were levied against hip hop artists concluded that the hip hop artist willfully broke the law due to sampling practices. Nothing about sampling really mattered; the power got shifted into the copyright holder hands. This had a major impact on the creative nature of hip hop music. Using multiple sources became economically infeasible. So people stopped using expensive sources and started moving to more unconventional and less popular sources. The distinction between plagiarism and paying homage is murky, with these kinds of sources. It is important that we pay due attribution to the sources, without overly impacting the economical feasibility.

The real battle is between creativity and the impact of attributions. The impact of attributions is both legal and economical. After the landmark copyright case, the economic impact of copyright has had negative impacts on the profit making of hip hop creations. Previously, artists used to have multiple layers of sources and this approach is no longer feasible at least economically. Major label artists have to take in the bureaucratic and financial cost of sample clearance and that is included into the creative process. Credit should be given to the artist where it is due and that is unquestionable. But the economical implications need to be reasonable. Today the cost to source from big artist has become very high that is the reason artist are refraining themselves from using popular sources. Big artists like Kanye West who are influential in sampling culture are being sloppy with securing permission for their samples. Kayne West uses obscure samples without giving any acknowledgement to the original artist. Many artists struggle with this issue of giving credit. Popular hip-hop artists are trying to evade legal obligations as there is no well defined process to legally clear samples. This is happening because something is seriously broken in the system.

There are an increased number of people who have turned to become consumers producing their own creations distributing music online. This has increased the availability of music online. This increased consumption and creation has led to a boarder and highly visible practice of sampling. The internet culture of consumption and creation has added to challenges for the copyright law. There are two ways in which music is distributed in the digital era. One is downloading and other is streaming. Since both these forms require a copy of the musical file to be downloaded either into the hard disk or the memory, the concept of ownership and usage starts to get obscure and leading to copyright violations. Distribution of these files without the copyright owner’s permission on the internet is a common practice. Clear case of infringement is when digital mp3 files are used to create new music without giving due homage to the original artist. Copyright laws are more complex in this digital age, because the concept of work is more abstract. New copyright law like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 provides civil and criminal remedies against those who circumvent technological safeguards and tamper with copyright management information[11]. Since Hip Hop has gone global in the digital age, artists can now take inspiration from anywhere in the world and overlap is inevitable. Regional flows have now transcended due to hip hop’s growth. Technology changes more rapidly than the laws, inevitably internet technology is going to continue to cause unforeseen problems and complications in the hip hop industry.

The fundamental need for copyright law is to recognize the contribution of the original owner and provide incentive for the creation of new works. A new concept of free culture by Lawrence Lessig and his company Creative Commons is streamlining the process of sampling clearing and therefore benefiting hip-hop artists. Artists can choose from a set of free licenses which range from one time use to continued usage as long as homage and due credit is given to the original artist. Creative Commons aims to build a movement of consumers and producerswho help build the public domain, and, by their work, demonstrate the importance of the public domain to other creativity (Lessig 283)[10]. An important aspect about free culture public domain is it works under the current copyright law. It is a great positive step that provides homage and credit to the original artist and at the same time does not restrict the artist in expressing their artistic message.


Large music companies have taken it upon themselves to act as gatekeepers for the hip hop industry. They are continuing to litigate any copyright infringement. This monitoring, though required, works adversely when it hinders the creative and innovative process of sampling. Economic infeasibility has made some producers limit their sampling sources and some producers have innovated new techniques to hide, transform and re-contextualize their samples. Hip-hop culture is based on the creation of new music using inspiration from old music and there is great sense of collective work in this community. The hip-hop community works under internal sampling ethics, where due credit and homage is given to the original artist. The specific rules of ethics differ from one artist to another, but they continue to work under one ethical codeto pay due respect and attribution to the artist. Copyright laws need to be in place to enforce the rights of ownership, but reforms are needed in these laws, so the artists are not overburdened by legal and economical implications of these laws. The hip-hop artist need to have free culture and independence to source and work towards creating new, innovative, creative, and exciting music. Stealing lyrics is outright plagiarism but borrowing cadence and delivery is different. Sampling sounds and taking inspiration from older music is as hip-hop as rhyming and lyrics itself.

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Hip Hop and it's relation to lyrical and musical plagiarism and copyright laws. (2019, Aug 08). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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