Music Sampling: Westbound Records and Bridgeport Music v No Limit Films (2004)

October 2004

Record Labels, Music Publishers

A US federal appeals court has ruled that recording artists should licence every musical sample included in their work even minor, unrecognisable snippets of music. The lower court had ruled that artists must pay when they sample another artists’ work where the use is recognisable but that it was legal to use musical ‘snippets’ as long as it wasn’t identifiable; The decision by a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati over-ruled that distinction. The court posed the question “If you cannot pirate the whole sound recording, can you ‘lift’ or ‘sample’ something less than the whole?” The Court’s answer to this was in the negative” and the court added “Get a license or do not sample – we do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way.” The case centred on the NWA song 100 Miles and Runnin, which samples a three-note guitar riff from Get Off Your Ass and Jam by ’70s funk-master George Clinton and Funkadelic. In the two-second sample, the guitar pitch has been lowered, and the copied piece was “looped” and extended to 16 beats. The sample appears five times in the new song. NWA’s song was included in the 1998 movie I Got the Hook Up, starring Master P and produced by his movie company, No Limit Films. No Limit Films has argued that the sample was not protected by copyright law. Bridgeport Music and Westbound Records, who own the copyright to the Funkadelic song, appealed the lower court’s summary judgement in favour of No Limit Films. The lower court in 2002 said that the riff in Clinton’s song was entitled to copyright protection, but the sampling “did not rise to the level of legally recognisable appropriation.” The appeals court disagreed, saying a recording artist who acknowledges sampling may be liable, even when the source of a sample is unrecognisable.

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COMMENT : This case re-affirms the position advanced in this column that sampling any part of a sound recording will always result in a copyright infringement – as Mr Justice Peterson said in 1916 – if it’s worth copying then it’s worth protecting. The position with lyrics and particularly the music in the song which is contained in the sound recording is not quite as clear. The US case of Newton v Diamond & Others (2003) suggested that whilst the copying of any part of a recording would need permission of the copyright owner, the ‘use’ of the music (contained within that recording) in a sample may or may not infringe the rights of the owner of the music – it will not infringe if it is not recognisable because in effect the melody or the tune has NOT been copied. But if the use of the song (or lyric) is recognisable then there will be infringement. Certainly if a ‘hook’, identifiable ‘riff’ or identifiable sequence of notes is used there may well be infringement just as use of only one verse of the lyrics of another song would be enough to constitute infringement (Ludlow Music v Williams & Others).
For further information on sampling see the article by Ben Challis ‘The Song Remains The Same’ at and the article on sampling and independent dance labels by Jenna Bruce at :

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