Envisioning a Compulsory-Licensing System for Digital Samples Through Emergent Technologies


Despite the rapid development of modern creative culture, federal copyright law has remained largely stable, steeped in decades of tradition and history. For the most part, copyright finds strength in its stability, surviving the rise of recorded music, software programs, and, perhaps the most disruptive technology of our generation, the internet.

On the other hand, copyright’s resistance to change can be detrimental, as with digital sampling. Although sampling can be a highly creative practice, and although copyright purports to promote creativity, current copyright law often interferes with the practice of sampling. The result is a largely broken system: Those who can legally sample are usually able to do so because they are wealthy, influential, or both. Those who cannot legally sample often sample illegally.

Many scholars have suggested statutory solutions to this problem. Arguably, the most workable solutions are rooted in compulsory licenses. Unfortunately, implementing these solutions is practically difficult.

Two recent developments invite us to revisit these proposals. First, with the passage of the Music Modernization Act (“MMA”), Congress has evinced a willingness to “modernize” parts of copyright law. Second, emergent technologies—from the MMA’s musical-works database to blockchain to smart contracts—can be leveraged to more easily implement a compulsory-licensing solution. This time around, rather than simply discuss why this solution is favorable, this Note will focus on how it can be implemented.