Jay Z is fighting back against a bizarre copyright lawsuit claiming he illegally sampled a single word.
In court documents filed last week, lawyers for the rap superstar asked a federal judge to dismiss a copyright infringement case against Jay Z, Roc-A-Fella and Atlantic Records, calling the litigation “misguided.” The original lawsuit, filed last year by the TufAmerica record label, concerns a sample on Jay Z’s 2009 hit “Run This Town.” The sample in question comes from the Eddie Bo song “Hook & Sling,” recorded in the mid-1990s, but it involves only a single syllable -- the word “Oh.”
Although sampling has been common practice for decades in rap and hip hop music, no clear rules exist as to what constitutes fair use, the doctrine of copyright law that allows artists to use some copyrighted material without permission. But given the miniscule length of the sample used in this case -- it lasts a fraction of a second -- Jay Z and company are arguing instead that the sample is “de minimis,” or too insignificant to warrant legal consideration.
“[I]s black letter law that words and short phrases are simply not protectable under the Copyright Act. Thus, Plaintiff cannot state a claim based on the alleged infringement of a generic lyric such as, ‘oh,’ or the sound recording thereof, and Plaintiffs claims should be dismissed as a matter of law.”
The lawyers have spun the story to suggest that TufAmerica believes it has a monopoly on the use of the word “Oh.” TufAmerica is seeking damages as well as proceeds from the song, which also features Rihanna and Kanye West. Neither Rihanna nor West are named in the suit, but TufAmerica previously sued West for a different song, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," which also included a sample from “Hook & Sling.”
As the Hollywood Reporter noted last year, TufAmerica is a notably litigious company with a history of copyright suits against music artists. The company is also involved in court battles with Frank Ocean and the Beastie Boys.
The unlicensed use of sampled music has landed artists in court before, but as Tech Dirt pointed out on Friday, no cases have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, and current legal precedent leaves much room for interpretation. Should the court deny Jay Z’s motion to dismiss, the rapper may have to rely on a fair use defense. The outcome of fair use cases are notoriously unpredictable.
“Run This Town,” coincidentally, was the focus of a second controversy this week when CBS pulled it from its “Thursday Night Football” intro in light of the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal. The move sparked ire from Rihanna, who blasted CBS on Twitter.
The motion to dismiss was filed in U.S. District Court in Southern New York and posted online Friday by Tech Dirt. Read the whole thing here, or just listen to “Run This Town” (at your own legal peril) below.