Rap Beef 2015: Copyright Edition

BIG graffiti by Tom Check

Graffiti by Ramon Alvarez featuring an image of The Notorious B.I.G. (Photograph by Tom Check)

2015 has seen a great deal of “beef” between rappers and other musicians spill over into the courts as recording artists have been going at it over copyright claims. Though many of these cases came to a close this December, some of the beefs stretch back decades. For example, on December 22nd a copyright case against the estate of the late Notorious B.I.G. was thrown out of court after Lee Hutson was unable to prove that B.I.G. illegally sampled his 1973 work on his 1992 album Ready to Die.

In Germany, rap producer Moses Pelham has been in a 12-year long fight against electronic dance music legends Kraftwerk that first reached the appeal stage in 2008 over a two second music sample. On December 13th, Kraftwerk finally won the long-haul battle when the Supreme Court of Germany ruled in Kraftwerk’s favour. The defendant is still pushing, claiming this final decision is unconstitutional; the likelihood of this claim succeeding is probably quite low, but the beef in this case seems far from over.

Rap mogul Jay-Z was sued by the heir of Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdy, who claimed that a 1999 track by the rapper sampled a 1957 composition of Hamdy’s without permission – even though Jay-Z’s label had already paid out $100,000 to the producers of the movie in which the song appeared. The argument is that the original song is so culturally significant, it never should have appeared on the hip hop artist’s “Big Pimpin” track at all. Jay-Z’s wife BeyoncĂ© then won a lawsuit on October 21st that had claimed her song “XO” was a copy of a back-up dancers’ track “XOXO”.

Some beef is more recent and far less historically relevant. As of December 23rd, 50 Cent is suing Rick Ross after Ross sued 50 earlier in the year. 50’s old G-Unit pal The Game is also being sued in a separate incident. Rick Ross sued again, this time taking EDM super-group LMFAO to court over lyrics and the group’s fashion line, and lost the case. Fashion and music were joined by film this year, as an artist claimed his 1978 song was ripped off by the NWA, though he apparently waited until the release of the film Straight Outta Compton and the use of the offending song in that film. He is also clearly going after the deepest pockets, with “hip hop’s first billionaire” Dr. Dre as the main target of the suit.

Many of the legal beefs will continue into 2016, shaping the future of music sampling laws and the precedents that will be used to settle such suits into the future.

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