Getting Tuf’: Label Sues Legendary Rap Act for Copyright Infringement

By Nicholas Guarino, Arther Law’s Industry Insider

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On May 3rd, the day before Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch lost his battle with cancer, R&B label TufAmerica brought suit against the band for copyright infringement of tracks sampled on the Beastie Boys’ albums License to Ill and Paul’s Boutique. TufAmerica owns the rights to musical tracks by the band Trouble Funk, and alleged that the songs, “Hold It Now Hit It” and “The New Style,” both sampled Trouble Funk’s “Drop the Bomb,” while the song “Shadrack” sampled bits of Trouble Funk’s “Say What.”

In a recent ruling, District Court Judge Alison Nathan allowed further testing of “Drop the Bomb” and “Say What” and dismissed claims made by TufAmerica on four other songs.

TufAmerica’s original complaint stated that “only after conducting careful audio analysis” was it able to “determine” that the Beastie Boys had sampled its music. In response, the defendants raised the important issue of whether or not the amount of sampling done was discernible enough by listeners to be considered actual infringement. Judge Nathan disagreed with the Beastie Boys, stating that the “focus of the relevant inquiry is on whether the samples taken from the Trouble Funk songs constitute a substantial portion of the original song,” not whether the samples can be easily discerned by listeners. The focus, she said, is “whether the protectable elements of the samples are quantitatively and qualitatively significant” to Trouble Funk’s original songs.license-to-ill-cassette

Two songs allegedly sampled by the Beastie Boys in TufAmerica’s suit met this test. “Let’s Get Small,” used on “Hold It Now Hit It,” accounted for 51 seconds. The second sample, from “Say What” happened to be only one second of the original track, but was “not simply a phrase of the song, but rather the title phrase of the song,” and was deemed qualitatively significant.

The remaining claims were dismissed on grounds that a three-second drumbeat used in one song was not significant enough to qualify, and another sample lacked sufficient originality because the sound effect employed “often accompanies a visual image of a falling object in cartoons or movies.”

The Beastie Boys’ biggest victory, however, was convincing the judge to apply an “injury rule” that limited  the plaintiff to claim infringement on works produced up to three years prior to when the suit was filed. This ruling stood in opposition to the “discovery rule,” which allows for infringement claims to be brought on works made before the three year time limit.

While the court did in fact find infringement against the Beastie Boys, damages here were rather limited.

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