Recorded music, music publishing
Three-time Grammy-winning Chicago-native Chancellor Johnathan Bennett aka Chance the Rapper was sued for copyright infringement last week. The suit was filed by Abdul Wali Muhammad on the 12th September in an Illinois District Court. Muhammad is a musician-turned lawyer, who copyrighted the composition of ‘Bridge Through Time’ in 1979.
Muhammad’s claim rests on Bennett’s sampling of his composition in the track ‘Windows’ from his debut mixtape as Chance, 10 Day. The sampling of the track is quite clear with it forming the beat to ‘Windows’. The only modifications made by producer Apollo Brown were a slight move from 81 to 80 BPM and the track moved down a semitone.
Whilst the use of copyrighted material is fairly obvious, Bennett’s particular approach to the music industry makes the case interesting. Bennett wrote 10 Day after being suspended from school in 2011. ‘Waves’ was released in December 2011 and soon after Complex listed him as one of ‘10 New Chicago Rappers To Watch Out For’ in February 2012.
The mixtape itself was only self-released on DatPiff.com in April 2012. Since then it has been downloaded for free 538,617 times (as of 18th September 2017) from that website. Bennett has continued his independent streak and now operates under Chance the Rapper LLC (joint Defendant in the suit). Like other mixtapes 10 Day has had no commercial release but was accidentally released on iTunes in January 2017.
A similar case in 2012 between Lord Finesse and Mac Miller led to an in-court settlement, although, like ‘Windows’, it was released as a free mixtape. The interesting element in the case is the level of damages. Under 17 U.S.C. § 504(a) and (b),
“The copyright owner is entitled to recover the actual damages suffered by him or her as a result of the infringement, and any profits of the infringer that are attributable to the infringement and are not taken into account in computing the actual damages. In establishing the infringer’s profits, the copyright owner is required to present proof only of the infringer’s gross revenue, and the infringer is required to prove his or her deductible expenses and the elements of profit attributable to factors other than the copyrighted work.”
This is where the impact of ‘Waves’ onto Bennett’s later career comes into play. In a music industry where profits are made from branding, merchandise, and ticket sales, calculating the ‘elements of profit attributable to factors other than the copyrighted work’ become difficult.
The Industry Observer’s Nathan Jolly has described this as the lawsuit ‘that could destroy the hip hop industry’ but it remains to be seen what lasting impact this would have, especially if an out-of-court settlement can be reached. However, if there is one thing to come out of this case it would be to not sample lawyers’ music.
By Jonathan Coote. Jonathan is a guitarist, who is currently working as a paralegal after studying music at Cambridge University and King’s College London