by Eric Maloney, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
Apparently, Bridgeport Music has never seen the episode of Chappelle's Show declaring that "Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothing to [mess] with." The record label has decided to sue the group, specifically artists Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, and producer RZA, for reportedly using a sample of a 1970's recording originally by the Magictones on a 2009 Raekwon album track. The portion of the recording allegedly utilized in production of the song was sped up to change the sample's key from E minor to F# minor, and constituted four measures of the original tune. The sample was only ten seconds long.
Wu-Tang Clan isn't the only group currently under scrutiny for their use of sampling. The Beastie Boys are also facing an infringement suit, due to allegedly sampling two songs by a group called Trouble Funk in four of their tracks from the late 1980's. This suit is different in at least one respect from the Bridgeport matter: the record company, Tuf America, will have to show not only infringement, but also explain why the suit shouldn't be barred by the statute of limitations after over 20 years have passed since the Beasties released these songs.
These lawsuits are hardly novel; hip-hop and electronica artists have been subject to infringement liability for years now due to the rise in their use of digital sampling methods. The Beastie Boys especially have been repeatedly sued for using unauthorized samples. (See, e.g. Newton v. Diamond, 204 F. Supp. 2d 1244 (C.D. Cal. 2002). For a great summary of the history of sampling in music production and court cases regarding infringement, see Professor Tracy Reilly's article Good Fences Make Good Neighboring Rights in the Winter 2012 issue of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology.
As Professor Reilly indicates in her article, the latest federal appeals court to directly address this issue has taken a hard-line stance: appropriation of any part of a sound recording is a physical taking, no matter how minute the sample may be. That case, Bridgeport Music v. Dimnesion Films, featured the same plaintiff record company that is now suing Wu-Tang Clan. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in this instance held that there is no type of de minimis protection for use of small samples; instead, any unauthorized, direct sample of a protected recording subsequently used by an artist constitutes infringement.
The risk that courts run in following such a bright-line doctrine is that they may be a bit behind trends in culture and technology in dealing so harshly with those who choose to sample copyrighted works. So-called "mash-up" artists, such as Greg Gillis of Girl Talk, make a living through exclusively sampling copyrighted works and then distributing them for free under the penumbra of "fair use." His sampling is both notorious and fairly obvious; there are websites dedicated to tracking which samples he chooses to use in his productions. Gillis is still able to make a living by touring and selling merchandise, while also speaking out against current copyright infringement standards.
As digital sampling techniques continue to improve and the demand for "mash-up" artists grows, the Bridgeport ruling will start to look dated in the face of the reality of modern-day music production. This is especially true in the case against the Wu-Tang Clan, where it appears somewhat absurd to condition liability on such a small amount of sampled music. For now, though, artists will need to stay on their toes and be sure to license any samples, no matter how minimal, or face the consequences. This doctrine may stifle creativity for the time being, but perhaps all this legal wrangling will give artists emotional fodder for future compositions. Either way, it's becoming clearer as more of these suits are brought that greater clarity on the issue is needed, either from Congress or the courts. A better balance between encouraging creativity and protecting copyrights than what is given to us by Bridgeport can hopefully be found as this area of law continues to evolve.