Arts, Column

COLUMN: Cite Your Sources: Copyright Controversies In Music Industry

Recently in music news, a lawsuit was filed against Frank Ocean for copyright issues involving “Super Rich Kids,” the fifth single from his album Channel Orange.  The track samples Mary J. Blige’s 1992 song “Real Love” and was released as a single in 2013. What’s odd, though, is that Blige isn’t the one suing. See, “Real Love” actually partially sampled from a song called “Top Billin,'” recorded in 1987 by Audio Two. So technically, Audio Two owns a certain percentage of the song and in turn, a certain percentage of Ocean’s.

Oh, but that’s not all! The band Audio Two isn’t the one filing the lawsuit, either!

It turns out that the drums from “Top Billin'” are actually a remixed version of a song from 1973 written and performed by Roy C and the Honeydrippers. The owners of that song, a record label called TufAmerica, has registered its complaint on the grounds that it owns 3.15 percent of “Real Love” and was never contacted about or compensated for Channel Orange. This means that Frank Ocean sampled a sample within a sample that was actually already a sample. It’s a level of recursion generally reserved for Inception jokes, but TufAmerica is anything but messing around-they’re also suing Blige for the sample in “Real Love,” even though that song is old enough to drink in Massachusetts.

Ah yes, the wacky world of music ownership law spins on.

It’s worth noting that both sides involved here are infamous for this sort of thing. For his relatively brief career, Ocean has been the subject of sampling controversy an inordinate number of times.  He was sued by producer Micah Otano for another track off Channel Orange, “Lost”-Otano claimed that he was not credited for the sampled song in question, “Daylight.” Before that, the Eagles threatened to sue Ocean for illegal use of “Hotel California” in his song “American Wedding.” Ocean’s argument for why he never credited the Eagles there was that he never “made a dime” off that track because he released it for free, so he therefore didn’t owe any royalties. He also posed an interesting-and shamelessly blunt-question regarding Don Henley’s determination to sue him for the song: “Ain’t this guy rich as f-k?  Why sue the new guy?”  Whether that’s a legitimate defense, it definitely deflates the urgency a bit.  Still, someone could just as easily ask Ocean: “Well, why do you keep not crediting your samples?”  Either way, Ocean clearly has been down this road before.

Then in the left corner you have TufAmerica, a subsidiary of Tuff City, which is one of the most notoriously litigious labels in the business.  In fact, copyright lawsuits are essentially all they do: most music media outlets have dubbed Tuff City a “sample troll,” meaning a company whose main business is buying, selling, and legally disputing music rights. The label’s founder, a former journalist named Aaron Fuchs, claims to have pioneered this contentious business strategy. “Here I was making money for sample clearances,” he said in a 1994 interview withBillboard. “While the average publishing person was still looking for the next ‘Just the Way you are.'” From everything I’ve heard about this guy, he’s like a freakingJames Bond villain. In recent years, his company has sued Kanye West, Jay-Z, the Beastie Boys, EPMD, Christina Agulara, and LL Cool J.  Yes, that’s right: LL Cool J-you could have sued Jay-Z twice for all I care, but you mess with LL Cool J and, by God, you’re playing with fire.

My only comment on all of this is to point to how absolutely ludicrous the entire matter of music copyright has become.  Why, I ask you, is it so difficult for musical artists just to cite their sources?  Can’t Ocean do the 11 minutes of research necessary to find that the song he’s sampling is actually a sample of a sample itself?  Or, you know, just write an original riff for once? And on the other hand: why is the decline of the music industry repeatedly blamed on Internet piracy when there are record companies like TufAmerica that exist solely to abuse the impossibly broken copyright laws in the U.S.?  How is it fair that consumers are punished with higher download prices while, people like Fuchs become millionaires off of art they had no part in creating?

Also, can’t we all just leave LL Cool J alone?

February 12, 2014