What Comes Around: Beastie Boys Win Another Copyright Suit

The Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique is commonly cited as an all-time great album that couldn’t have been made under current copyright laws.  There are over 100 samples on the album, many of them easily recognizable even to casual music fans. The song “Shake Your Rump” alone includes samples of Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin and James Brown, among many others.

And although the Beastie Boys actually cleared the majority of samples on the album (contrary to popular belief), clearance costs were significantly lower in 1989 than in 2015. Making the same album today would be prohibitively expensive for pretty much anyone.

This brings us to the Beasties’ most recent copyright litigation—one of three prominent cases involving the group in recent years.

TufAmerica is a New York record label that, as Billboard noted, has sometimes been called a “sample troll” for using aggressive copyright protection tactics—for example, the company sued musician Frank Ocean for interpolating a Mary J. Blige song that sampled a breakbeat from another song that sampled a breakbeat from one of the label’s songs (phew) without the label’s permission.  

(Incidentally, as hip-hop grows and ages, the phenomenon of sampling samples will grow too—and I’m curious to see how courts will handle samples-of-samples-of-samples-of-samples in the future.)

The label sued the Beastie Boys in 2012 on behalf of D.C. go-go group Trouble Funk. The Beasties sampled the band on three songs from Paul’s Boutique, and TufAmerica claimed to own the rights to the two Trouble Funk songs at issue.

Fortunately for the Beastie Boys, preliminary issues made disposing of the case simpler than it could have been.

As the Hollywood Reporter wrote, TufAmerica’s 1999 deal with Trouble Funk to administer their copyrights only included agreements with two of the three band members. Without the third member, the band could only convey a non-exclusive license to TufAmerica—and only an exclusive license would have given TufAmerica the right to sue on the band’s behalf.

The court therefore granted summary judgment to the Beastie Boys.

It may have been interesting to see how this case would have been resolved on the merits, but with this easier ruling the group still looks to be batting 1.000—even better than Sadaharu Oh—in recent copyright cases.

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