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George Clinton Sues Black Eyed Peas for Copyright Infringement

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George Clinton by Spector1 on Flickr

George Clinton by Spector1 on Flickr

The legendary, Funkadelic George Clinton is suing the Black Eyed Peas alleging copyright infringement. Clinton’s complaint accuses the group of illegally sampling his 1979 “(Not Just) Knee Deep” on their “Shut Up Remix” and “Shut the Phunk Up Remix” and seeks an injunction to stop distribution of the song and the maximum statutory damages of $150,000 per infringement.

Clinton’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” first appeared on “Uncle Jam Wants You” and has been sampled by many artists including Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, and De La Soul. Clinton has increasingly been going after music samplers, probably building on the success of Bridgeport Music, which was declared the owner of the rights to many of Clinton’s songs in 2001.

Indeed, two comments to The Hollywood Reporter article suggest that Clinton’s court loss in 2001 means he couldn’t be suing the Black Eyed Peas now as he lost all rights to his music back then. This peaked my curiosity as well, so I started digging. I haven’t been able to come up with that 2001 decision, but the best I can surmise is that perhaps although Clinton lost the rights in the music compositions to his songs through that decision, he was still able to claim rights to the sound recordings, on which he bases the current lawsuit (PDF).

The Sixth Circuit has explicitly stated that “Sound recordings and their underlying musical compositions are separate works with their own distinct copyrights” in a case that involved Clinton’s work, in fact, so that is one possibility.

Another is that Clinton and Bridgeport have since come to some sort of agreement regarding the rights to those sound recordings — or that, as the commenters at The Hollywood Reporter suggest, Clinton’s lawsuit isn’t going to go very far because he doesn’t own any rights in his songs. We’ll just have to watch this one as it develops.

Sampling music is generally a violation of copyright, but it isn’t pursued as a legal claim very often. This laissez-faire attitude seems to be changing in recent years, though, and has even led the Sixth Circuit to proclaim (again in a case involving a Clinton song), “Get a license or do not sample. We do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way.”

In the music business, Bridgeport has been seen as a “sample troll” that does stifle creativity through such lawsuits; will the original Funk Master himself eventually be seen in the same light?

What do you think? Should sampling lawsuits be pursued or should sampling fall under the fair use exception to copyright law?

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December 14th, 2010 at 10:01 am