Ramblings & ephemera

George Clinton and the sample troll

From Tim Wu’s “On Copyright’s Authorship Policy” (Internet Archive: 2007):

On May 4, 2001, a one-man corporation named Bridgeport Music, Inc. launched over 500 counts of copyright infringement against more than 800 different artists and labels.1 Bridgeport Music has no employees, and other than copyrights, no reported assets.2 Technically, Bridgeport is a “catalogue company.” Others call it a “sample troll.”

Bridgeport is the owner of valuable copyrights, including many of funk singer George Clinton’s most famous songs – songs which are sampled in a good amount of rap music.3 Bridgeport located every sample of Clinton’s and other copyrights it owned, and sued based on the legal position that any sampling of a sound recording, no matter how minimal or unnoticeable, is still an infringement.

During the course of Bridgeport’s campaign, it has won two important victories. First, the Sixth Circuit, the appellate court for Nashville adopted Bridgeport’s theory of infringement. In Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films,4 the defendants sampled a single chord from the George Clinton tune “Get Off Your Ass and Jam,” changed the pitch, and looped the sound. Despite the plausible defense that one note is but a de minimus use of the work, the Sixth Circuit ruled for Bridgeport and created a stark rule: any sampling, no matter how minimal or undetectable, is a copyright infringement. Said the court in Bridgeport, “Get a license or do not sample. We do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way.”5 In 2006 Bridgeport convinced a district court to enjoin the sales of the bestselling Notorious B.I.G. album, Ready to Die, for “illegal sampling.”6 A jury then awarded Bridgeport more than four million dollars in damages.7

The Bridgeport cases have been heavily criticized, and taken as a prime example of copyright’s excesses.8 Yet the deeper problem with the Bridgeport litigation is not necessarily a problem of too much copyright. It can be equally concluded that the ownership of the relevant rights is the root of the problem. George Clinton, the actual composer and recording artist, takes a much different approach to sampling. “When hip-hop came out,” said Clinton in an interview with journalist Rick Karr, “I was glad to hear it, especially when it was our songs – it was a way to get back on the radio.”9 Clinton accepts sampling of his work, and has released a three CD collection of his sounds for just that purpose.10 The problem is that he doesn’t own many of his most important copyrights. Instead, it is Bridgeport, the one-man company, that owns the rights to Clinton’s work. In the 1970s Bridgeport, through its owner Armen Boladian, managed to seize most of George Clinton’s copyrights and many other valuable rights. In at least a few cases, Boladian assigned the copyrights to Bridgeport by writing a contract and then faking Clinton’s signature.11 As Clinton puts it “he just stole ‘em.”12 With the copyrights to Clinton’s songs in the hands of Bridgeport – an entity with no vested interest in the works beyond their sheer economic value – the targeting of sampling is not surprising.

1 Tim Wu, Jay-Z Versus the Sample Troll, Slate Magazine, Nov. 16, 2006, http://www.slate.com/id/2153961/.

2 See Bridgeport Music, Inc.’s corporate entity details, Michigan Department of Labor & Economic Growth, available at http://www.dleg.state.mi.us/bcs_corp/dt_corp.asp?id_nbr=190824&name_entity=BRIDGEPORT%20MUSIC,%20INC (last visited Mar. 18, 2007).

3 See Wu, supra note 1.

4 410 F.3d 792 (6th Cir. 2005).

5 Id. at 801.

6 Jeff Leeds, Judge Freezes Notorious B.I.G. Album, N.Y. Times, Mar. 21, 2006, at E2.

7 Id.

8 See, e.g., Matthew R. Broodin, Comment, Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films: The Death of the Substantial Similarity Test in Digital Samping Copyright Infringemnt Claims—The Sixth Circuit’s Flawed Attempt at a Bright Line Rule, 6 Minn. J. L. Sci. & Tech. 825 (2005); Jeffrey F. Kersting, Comment, Singing a Different Tune: Was the Sixth Circuit Justified in Changing the Protection of Sound Recordings in Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films?, 74 U. Cin. L. Rev. 663 (2005) (answering the title question in the negative); John Schietinger, Note, Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films: How the Sixth Circuit Missed a Beat on Digital Music Sampling, 55 DePaul L. Rev. 209 (2005).

9 Interview by Rick Karr with George Clinton, at the 5th Annual Future of Music Policy Summit, Wash. D.C. (Sept. 12, 2005), video clip available at http://www.tvworldwide.com/showclip.cfm?ID=6128&clip=2 [hereinafter Clinton Interview].

10 George Clinton, Sample Some of Disc, Sample Some of D.A.T., Vols. 1-3 (1993-94).

11 Sound Generator, George Clinton awarded Funkadelic master recordings (Jun. 6, 2005), http://www.soundgenerator.com/news/showarticle.cfm?articleid=5555.

12 Clinton Interview, supra note 9.

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