Summary from a Student: Music Sampling, Fair Use, and Social Justice

– Anthony Williams, rising 2L, Howard University School of Law

This session was a panel discussion with Lita Rosario (President & CEO – WYZ Girl Entertainment Consulting, LLC), Chanelle Hardy (Strategy Partnerships and Outreach – Google), and Dylan Gilbert (Policy Fellow – Public Knowledge); moderated by Kimberly Tignor (Public Policy Director – Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law). Panelists discussed the complicated relationship between music sampling, the Fair Use standard, and how to utilize the Fair Use standard as a tool for Social Justice. Attorney Hardy spoke to the imbalance that people of color face when dealing with copyright law enforcement. Specifically, suits for copyright infringement are brought against people of color at higher rates than their Caucasian counterparts. Additionally, people of color have lower success rates in asserted claims of copyright infringement.

Attorney Gilbert transitioned to how there needs to be legislation outlining a specific Fair Use standard. The Fair Use standard allows an individual to use copyrighted materials as long as it is not a substantial amount and for a transformative purpose. However, courts vary in deciding what qualifies as fair use. There is no law in the United States that expressly dictates how many seconds of a copyrighted sound recording an artist can use. Hip-Hop artists are particularly susceptible to the lack of consistent Fair Use guidelines, as Hip-Hop music relies heavily on music sampling. In response, Attorney Rosario emphasized this point by discussing a technique used a lot in Hip-Hop called looping, in which a composer takes a part of an instrumental and loops it multiple times to create a new sound. Although this technique essentially creates a new composition, nevertheless suits against Hip-Hop artists are initiated at disproportionate rates due to the inconsistency. For example in Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films, rap group N.W.A was told that a music license was mandatory to use a sample, but in the Salsoul v. Madonna, Pop singer Madonna was allowed to use copyrighted material deemed de minimis or so trivial that it was not a violation of copyright infringement.

In the final segment, Attorney Rosario offered an interesting perspective on advocating for stronger copyright laws and a definitive fair use standard. Attorney Rosario represents some older musicians, whose primary source of income is through music sampling. Without stronger copyright protections these artists are unable to generate income as they are unable to tour or put out new music. Social justice advocacy takes many different forms and it was highly informative to learn about opportunities to advocate in the intellectual property realm.