Sheppard Mullin Beats Beastie Boys Copyright Claims
In an unusually cool assignment, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton has spent the last year defending the Beastie Boys against claims that a handful of their songs from the 1980s unlawfully sampled music from a lesser-known band called Trouble Funk. The first key ruling in the case came down on Tuesday, and it's a partial win for the seminal hip hop group and its big firm lawyers.
U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan in Manhattan dismissed most of the copyright infringement claims in the case, which is being spearheaded by TufAmerica Inc., a record label and music publishing company that owns the copyrights to Trouble Funk's music. Of TufAmerica's six original copyright infringement claims, only two are left standing. Siding with Sheppard Mullin, Nathan also limited damages on statute of limitations grounds.
TufAmerica brought the case in May 2012. It alleges that five Beastie Boy songs from between 1986 and 1989 are infringing because they include snippets of Trouble Funk's music. One of the Beastie Boys songs, "Hold It Now Hit It" from the band's debut album License to Ill, allegedly infringes on two different Trouble Funk copyrights. To be clear, the case involves routine sampling, not outright plagiarism. With respect to one of the allegedly infringing songs, "Shadrach," the dispute is over a single, second-long utterance of the phrase "say what."
As the Los Angeles Times explained in this well-reported piece, TufAmerica has in recent years been buying — and enforcing — copyrights on old songs that have been widely sampled by hip hop artists. "They're pretty much going after people that have been using and abusing our stuff without our permission," Trouble Funk's original bassist told The Washington Post. Around the same time, TufAmerica sued Kanye West over his alleged use of an R&B song from 1969.
TufAmerica will now have to make do with a smaller case against the Beastie Boys. Nathan ruled Tuesday that as a matter of law TufAmerica can't prevail on four of its six infringement claims. She ruled, for instance, that "Hold It Now Hit It" didn't illegally sample a three-second drum sequence in a Trouble Funk song. The drum sequence isn't "important or unique" to the original Trouble Funk song, so it can't be the basis for an infringement claim, she ruled.
In a blow to TufAmerica, Nathan also ruled that the period of time for calculating damages began to run in 2009. The company tried to get around the statute of limitations bar by arguing that it didn't discover the infringing material until recently, but Nathan found she didn't need to consider that argument because the discovery rule is inapplicable to copyright disputes like this one.
We suspect there's still some money at issue in the case though. The Beastie Boys are an evergreen act that continues to sell records to this day. And its sales surged last year, after founding member Adam Yauch (a.k.a. MCA) died from cancer.
"We're looking forward to pursuing the remaining claims," TufAmerica's attorney, Kelly Talcott of Sea Cliff, N.Y., told us in an interview.
Sheppard Mullin's Kenneth Anderson declined to comment.