Use of unauthorized music samples deemed copyright violation

Content Regulation | Feature | September 22, 2004

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Use of unauthorized music samples deemed copyright violation

  • Federal law aimed at stopping piracy applies to musicians who incorporate other artists' works into their work, a federal appellate court ruled.

Sep. 22, 2004 -- Musicians' unlicenced use of snippets of music from another musician's work violates piracy laws, even if the sample taken cannot be clearly identified as being from another artist's song, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) ruled.

A three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the musicians' fair- use argument and found that federal law applies to all piracy, including piracy by musical artists themselves.

"If you cannot pirate the whole sound recording, can you 'lift' or 'sample' something less than the whole? Our answer to that question is in the negative," the court wrote in its ruling.

In many genres, especially hip hop, a large amount of music comes from sampling.

"Get a license or do not sample," the court wrote. "We do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way."

Sampling has been a long-standing practice, with most musicians operating under the assumption that if a sample is easily identifiable, a license must be purchased.

More than 800 lawsuits have been filed in Nashville courts over unlicensed sampling of artists' copyrighted works, The Washington Post reported.

James Van Hook, dean of Belmont University's Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business in Nashville, is especially concerned about the court's ruling. "It seems a little extreme to me," Van Hook told The Post. "When something is identifiable, that is the key -- whether it's identifiable enough that it has some sense of identity to enough people."

The court's ruling does not restrict the composition of new music, but bans the use of an original artist's specific recording.

The Sixth Circuit piracy case involves the NWA song "100 Miles and Runnin'," which uses a three-note guitar riff taken directly from George Clinton and Funkadelic's "Get Off Your Ass and Jam." The sample in question runs 2 seconds. The guitar pitch was lowered, and the copied work was looped and extended to 16 beats. The new work used the sample five times.

The NWA song was used in the 1998 film "I Got the Hook Up," produced by No Limit Films, which argued the sample was not protected by copyright law since it was not original.

A federal district court ruled in favor of No Limit Films on Oct. 11, 2002, ruling that while recognizing that Clinton's song was legally entitled to copyright protection, the sampled portion "did not rise to the level of legally cognizable appropriation."

The appeals court reversed, citing that "the defendant had not disputed that it digitally sampled a copyrighted sound recording." The case has since been remanded to the lower court.

Richard Busch, the plaintiff's attorney, was pleased with the ruling. No Limit Films' attorney Robert Sullivan did not return telephone calls.

(Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films) -- EF


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