Andy Samberg Sued for Copyright Infringement
By Maria Cheung
Reviewed by Jennifer Williams
Comedian Andy Samberg is facing a copyright lawsuit over his Saturday Night Live (“SNL”) digital shorts “Shy Ronnie” and “Like A Boss.” The lawsuit was filed in a New York federal court in early November by St. Louis musicians and production team Aleric “Rick tha Ruler” Banks and Monique Hines against Samberg, The Lonely Island (Samberg’s comedy troup/band), SNL, Universal Republic Records and NBC Universal for willful copyright infringement and unjust enrichment. According to court documents, Banks and Hines claim they created and copyrighted the music that formed the basis for “Shy Ronnie” and “Like A Boss.”
The plaintiffs say they sent master recordings to Samberg and his bandmates Akiva Shaffer and Jorma Taccone, who then recorded their own lyrics over Banks and Hines’s music. According to media reports, Banks and Hines had a mutual connection with Samberg and submitted some tracks to him as the comedian prepared to release his first album with his band, The Lonely Island. Samberg’s band recorded the tracks, allegedly taking the plaintiffs’ copyrighted master recordings verbatim, and added lyrics. About a year later, after Lonely Island’s album came out, Samberg reprised a couple of the songs on SNL. On April 4, 2009, Samberg and actor Seth Rogen performed “Like A Boss.” On December 5, 2009, Samberg and popstar Rihanna performed “Shy Ronnie,” a sketch about a bashful musician who has trouble performing when it is his time to rap or sing. “Shy Ronnie” was nominated for a 2010 Emmy.
Initially, Banks and Hines were happy with the developments, especially after “Shy Ronnie” was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. However, after failing to receive claimed credit and compensation, the two have filed this lawsuit alleging that Samberg’s music and the music in the clips were not truly original. Banks and Hines claim they have received neither credit nor royalties for their music despite petitions to Universal Music Group. They are seeking all profits gained from the skits, plus attorney’s fees, unspecified additional damages, and interest. NBC Universal has no comment on the litigation.
The plaintiffs also state that before the release of Samberg’s album and skits, a Universal Music Group subsidiary label sent them a producer declaration form. Banks filled it out and stated in it that as the writer and producer of “Like A Boss,” he was a 50 percent owner of the copyright. Banks says he received a response letter claiming that he had entered into an agreement with Lonely Island that only entitled him to a 25 percent copyright interest. Despite this however, Banks claims he has not received any producer royalties or any profits from SNL‘s exploitation of his music.
One question I do have is why did Banks and Hines wait almost over two years to file this lawsuit? Once the shorts appeared on television and Banks and Hines did not receive any credit or royalties, should not they have come forward then? Despite this, I would need to listen to Banks and Hines’s music tracks and then compare them to Samberg’s in order to determine if there is genuine copyright infringement. This is a tricky area of law because in order to prove Samberg actually infringed Banks and Hines work, Banks and Hines would need to show Samberg copied their work in fact by reproducing it directly or by showing Samberg had access to their work and in light of this access, his work is substantially similar to theirs. Samberg can also use a fair use defense such as parody or simply state that he independently created the music. Both are valid defenses to copyright infringement. However, if Banks and Hines have the producer declaration form and a letter from the record company stating that they have a 25 percent copyright interest, then this should be sufficient for a court to rule that they are entitled to 25 percent of the copyright royalties and fees. Whatever happens, it will definitely be interesting to watch this lawsuit unfold.