Ghostface Killah Wins Copyright Infringement Case

December 2003

Music Publishing, Record Labels

A New York federal court has upheld the “fair use” doctrine by dismissing a lawsuit against Sony Music Entertainment and rappers Ghostface Killah, Raekwon and the Alchemist for copyright infringement. The plaintiff, Abilene Music, accused the rappers and Sony, which released the album, of infringing its copyright in the well known song “What a Wonderful World.” The infraction allegedly occurred when the trio made slang references to marijuana in a rap that began with a variation on the first three lines of the song popularized by Louis Armstrong (news).
The defendants successfully argued that while the song’s lyrics were adapted from “What a Wonderful World,” they were protected as fair use under the Copyright Act.
In granting a summary judgement for Sony and the rappers, Judge Gerard Lynch said the rap was clearly a parody, intended to criticise and ridicule the cheerful perspective of the original song. The judge also noted that the rap made key changes to the lyrics and to the overall effect of the lines, and it was not an imitation of the original. The Judge held that whereas the original first three lines of ‘Wonderful World’ describe the beauty of nature, the rap version read more like an invitation to get high with the singer. The slang reference to marijuana and the dark nature of the rap tune was in stark contrast to the mood of beauty in the original song.
In a recent UK case where the claimant brought an action objecting to derogatory treatment of his lyrical work by a rap artist (under the moral rights provisions of UK copyright law), Mr Justice Lewison refused to make a judgement on the meaning of the alleged derogatory rap deciding that whilst a form of English rap was, in effect, a foreign language.

See: and Law Updates, June 2003 (Confetti Records & Others -v- Warner Music Ltd)

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