If you listen to top 40 radio, you have likely encountered songs that sound a lot like others you have heard before. Through the process of sampling, musicians are increasingly “borrowing” a portion of an existing track to make new songs.
Whether or not artists need to obtain permission to use the samples is a matter of copyright law. In an ongoing lawsuit against the Beastie Boys, a New York federal judge clarified when sampling crosses the line to copyright infringement.
TufAmerica, Inc., the exclusive administrator of a number of copyrights belonging to the musical group Trouble Funk, alleges that the Beastie Boys unlawfully sampled a number of the group’s songs on the Beastie Boys' hit albums Licensed to Ill and Paul's Boutique. TufAmerica specifically contends that five Beastie Boys songs illegally incorporate six separate samples from four Trouble Funk songs.
In response to a motion to dismiss, Federal District Judge Alison Nathan recently ruled that four of the six claims did not amount to copyright infringement. Judge Nathan examined each allegedly infringing song separately to determine "whether the protectable elements of the samples are quantitatively and qualitatively significant to the original song."
For example, Judge Nathan determined that the Say What sample was qualitatively significant because the sample was also the title of the song and was repeated emphatically at various points in the recording. Conversely, the court found a sample from Trouble Funk’s Drop the Bomb was neither quantitatively or qualitatively significant. As explained by Judge Nathan, the drumbeat at issue constitutes merely three seconds of the nearly six-minute song and is no way the “heart of the composition.”
In addition the dismissal of several of the infringement claims, the Beastie Boys also won a significant victory when Judge Nathan elected to follow the "injury rule" rather than the "discovery rule" with regard to the application of the three-year statute of limitations. As a result, TufAmerica’s potential damages are limited to infringing acts conducted after May 12, 2009, three years prior to the filing of the suit.