Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films is a court case that has had a major impact on the music industry, specifically with regards to the future of digital sampling. The case revolves around the use of a sample from the song “Get Off Your Ass and Jam” by George Clinton and the Funkadelics, whose copyright is held by Bridgeport. The sample in question comes from a three-note, four-second guitar riff in “Get Off.” N.W.A.’s song, “100 Miles and Runnin’,” takes two seconds from this snippet, lowers the pitch, and loops it to extend 16 beats. This song was then included on the soundtrack for a Dimension Film’s movie, I Got the Hook Up, which Bridgeport Music then claimed to infringe on its copyright. In a district court, Dimenion Films won on grounds that the alleged infringement was de minimis, and hence not actionable. When brought before a federal court, however, the decision was reversed.
The court used the points on derivative work from Sections 106 and 114 of the US Copyright Law as reference for their decision. Because a sound copyright holder has the right to authorize the rearrangement, remix, and alteration of its recording, the copyright owner also then has the exclusive right to “sample” its recording. From this it was made clear: the judge announced, “Get a license or do not sample.” Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros case sided with copyright holders to an extent; but, after this interpretation, even the de minimis defense became null. The decision supports that the usage of any section of copyrighted work, regardless of length or clarity, needs clearance. The court analyzed that even when something small is taken from a sound recording, what was taken is still something of value. Further, the copyright holder of a sound recording doesn’t just own the “song,” but rather owns all of the fixed sounds in that recording.
The case had a monumental impact on music, copyright, and sampling. There now exists a “bright-line test,” where any sampling is infringement. This affects any producer or artist who wants to sample music in a song from here on out. Lengthy and costly negotiation and litigation will be necessary to sample, even just to take a two-second snippet. In my project I have two songs with samples. In one I rearrange a hefty portion of the original recording, which would have qualified as infringement after the Grand Upright v. Warner Brothers case. But in the second one, I sample a song while altering it so much that the source is unrecognizable. With the Bridgeport decision, though, there now stands a heavy consequence on my song and the type of sampling that I employed.
This journal article opens with a hypothetical: The main gist is that you are a successful businessman who one day comes to the office to find a first-year employee sitting at your computer. He is lifting exact portions of your work to incorporate into his own. He argues that because he is new, he should be entitled to borrow and quote your work, even if his final work seems to have your “signature style.”
You would never tolerate this, correct? It would be considered breaking and entering and intellectual property infringement. So why, then, should the music industry tolerate this rampant behavior that occurs through digital sampling?
The author points to the Bridgeport Music court case as what finally stood up for the talents and creative ideas of artists who work to attain their right “signature sound”—the sound that makes them top-selling acts. This piece is written in full support of the Bridgeport decision, with the perspective that the unethical and unlawful use of prior work amounts to copyright infringement. It covers the history of sampling technology, the response of the courts and the music industry to sampling, an analysis on the debate of whether sampling is “art” or “theft,” and lastly, a proposed solution to foster creativity while protecting against unauthorized sampling.
While all of these categories have relevance to my project, I was primarily drawn to the section on sampling as “art” vs. “theft.” In this, three myths are addressed and debunked: one, that sampling is analogous to “borrowing” work owned by others; two, that sampling is an art form and, therefore, samplers should be entitled to freely use copyrighted material; and three, that for a proper balance in copyright law, more protection should be granted to samplers. Every “myth” offers a variety of arguments presented by “free digital sampling” advocates. Each, however, is followed by a critical, thought provoking, and analytical assessment that fully shoots down any point in support of free sampling.
Most sources that focus on sampling and its relation to copyright law seem to draw criticism on the Bridgeport decision and subsequent infringement cases. It was really helpful to have an article that fully supported Bridgeport and the notion that all digital sampling, regardless of length or clarity, needs copyright clearance. Any form of reasoning I could come up with to defend the songs I created was covered—and each was fully and thoughtfully undermined. This adds a particularly interesting aspect and perspective to my project, my songs, and their copyright implication.
Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros. Records was the court case that started it all when it comes to sampling, copyright infringement, and the necessity of acquiring clearance to sample a copyrighted work. The case was brought against one of Warner Bros. Records’ artists, a rapper named Biz Markie, by Grand Upright Music, which owns the copyrights to singer and songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan. Grand Upright claimed that Biz Markie infringed upon O’Sullivan’s song, “Alone Again (Naturally),” by incorporating a partial piece of the copyrighted song into a rap recording. The court found this to be evident.
Markie’s main argument was that he should be excused from liability for infringing copyright because others in the rap world are also engaging in the illegal activity. The judge was quick to point out that this mere statement could do nothing more than lead to that argument’s own refutation. The judge then pointed to the US copyright laws, as well as even the Seventh Commandment, “Though shalt not steal,” as his basis for siding with Grand Upright. Just because stealing might be rampant in the rap music business, there is no way to view this as excusable or justifiable. The court viewed that appropriating copyrighted work into a new one for the sole aim of economic achievement is a blatant disregard for the law and the rights of others.
With this decision, the face and sound of rap music was forever changed. Until that point, sampling had been widespread in the hip-hop world; some artists had even been using ten to twenty samples a song. Now, all of these samples would have to be cleared—and at a cost. Many artists couldn’t afford to sample after this. At the same time, copyright holders could begin refusing to license their songs for one reason or another.
In my project I have two songs with samples. Had I produced them in 1985, for instance, I wouldn’t have to clear the samples, and I would be able to reap every monetary benefit to their success. After this Grand Upright case, however, things are different. To try and release either of my songs, I would have to go through a costly clearance negotiation with record and publishing companies; and for all I know, even if I offered to pay, they might still not clear my samples.
Newton v. Diamond is a court case that, similar to Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films, revolves around de minimis sampling. The case involves the rap group, the Beastie Boys, and accomplished jazz flutist, James Newton. The Beastie Boys, in their song “Pass the Mic,” sampled a very small segment of Newton’s recording, “Choir.” The sample was a six-second, three-note snippet of Newton playing the flute. The Beastie Boys acquired a license for the actual sound recording from a record company, but they didn’t obtain one for the underlying musical composition from Newton. The court held that the three-note segment of the composition of “Choir” could not be copyrighted because it lacked requisite originality; further, it stated that if the segment had been copyrightable, the Beastie Boy’s use was de minimis.
The analysis on de minimis, unlike in the Bridgeport case, was on the musical composition, not the sound recording. First, the three-note sequence wasn’t the heart of the work and was insubstantial as it appeared once within the four and one-half minute song. Even more important, though, is that the note sequence in question—C – D flat – C, over a held C note—doesn’t contain sufficient originality to be awarded copyright protection. There are only so many notes, chords, and chord progressions available to musicians. Therefore, some of these basic notes and progressions can’t be “owned” by anyone.
With this type of court decision and interpretation of copyright and de minimis laws, the need for certain sample clearances becomes void. Along with the outcome of the Bridgeport case, if I sampled a one-note snippet of a song, I would still need licensing from whoever owns the master recordings. With the Newton v. Diamond case, however, I would now only need licensing from the record company, for instance, and wouldn’t need to seek approval from a composer or music publishing company. The composer doesn’t own the rights to certain notes, and therefore I can sample certain compositions.
This is an important differentiation for me, or anyone who samples for that matter. It is definitely something to take into consideration for my songs that sample and any future song that I produce. It would allow me to sample small segments and only have to clear them with record companies, saving me time and money. This is an interesting wrinkle in copyright law that is certainly relevant and applicable.