Sometimes Borrowing Isn’t Stealing: De Minimis Sampling of Music Sound Recordings Isn’t Copyright Infringement, Say Two Key Courts in the United States and Germany

Setting music sampling up for a potential U.S. Supreme Court battle, the Ninth Circuit sided with Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone and her producer (Shep Pettibone) in emphatically rejecting the Sixth Circuit’s bright-line rule that all unlicensed sampling constitutes copyright infringement.  Just days earlier, Germany’s highest court ruled against seminal electronic band Kraftwerk in a similar dispute. While the reasoning in both cases overlapped in some respects, the German court went further by expressly protecting the artistic freedom of samplers and rejecting the requirement — which the Ninth Circuit embraced — that the sample not be recognizable as coming from the plaintiff’s song.

Music sampling, which is common in some musical genres, is the use of snippets from a sound recording — often altered or enhanced in some manner — in a new sound recording.  In Ciccone, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants Madonna, Pettibone and their associated record labels, music publishers and distributors on the grounds that — contrary to the Sixth Circuit rule set forth in Bridgeport — the de minimis exception to copyright infringement applies to sound recordings just as it does to other types of copyrighted works.  The samples in question were “horn hits” (punctuation-like snippets of horn section chords) that lasted, respectively, less than a second and less than a quarter-second, and the court found that the average listener was unlikely to recognize their source.  In the Kraftwerk case, which involved a two-second drum loop, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court overturned a finding that electropop producer Moses Pelham had infringed, reasoning that the lower court had not sufficiently considered whether the impact of the sample on Kraftwerk might be negligible.

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By Mark Wittow and Eliza Hall

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