When Adam Yauch, a member of rap group Beastie Boys, died in spring 2012 he made sure that his will didn’t allow for any use of his “artistic property” to be used in advertising. Ironically, Yauch and the Beastie Boys made their name in the late 80s by sampling others’ music in their albums. Sampling has always been a point of contention in the rap world. The day before Yauch’s death, TufAmerica (on behalf of group Trouble Funk) filed a suit against the Beastie Boys for copyright infringement on albums “Paul’s Boutique” and “Licensed to Ill.” The New York Times reported:
“Paul’s Boutique” has been acclaimed as a landmark in the development of the technique of sampling; virtually all its music was weaved from samples. But times have changed since then: licenses can be much more expensive than they were in the 1980s, and courts have tended to side with copyright owners in sampling disputes, leading some to question whether such an album could even be made today.
It’s been a litigious year and a half since then with two copyright infringement matters cropping up in the past month. Yauch’s will, a desire to protect intellectual property and the nature of sampling in rap continue to butt heads.
In Beastie Boys v. Monster Energy Co., S.D.N.Y., No. 1:12-cv-06065-PAE, 11/4/13, Monster allegedly infringed upon nine copyrights. Monster’s marketing team made a promotional video of their snowboarding event, Ruckus in the Rockies 2012, backed by a mashup of Beastie Boys songs mixed by DJ Z-Trip. The mashup was created upon the request of the Beastie Boys but neither they nor DJ Z-Trip ever gave permission to Monster to use that track. Judge Paul A. Engelmayer of the Southern District of New York concluded that it was reckless of Monster to allow “an employee with no apparent qualifications to negotiate complex matters of licensing and copyright law.”
That was earlier this month. The latest suit was brought against the Beastie Boys by toy company GoldieBlox and may not be as easy a win for them. GoldieBlox is a company “founded upon the principle of breaking down gender stereotypes, by offering engineering and construction toys specifically targeted to girls.” In their most recent promotional video, 3 young girls are bored with the plastic pink presents piled upon them and instead use their old toys to create a whimsical Rube Goldberg-esque machine. The video’s music is a parody of the Beastie Boys’ 1987 hit “Girls” that, unlike the original song, celebrates the ingenuity of girls. When the video went viral, the Beastie Boys followed up with a cease and desist letter which GoldieBlox countered by preemptively filing a law suit asking for declaratory and injunctive relief.
Referring back to Yauch’s will, Forbes writer Deborah Jacobs commented, “Yauch could only give away what he owned. So to know whether the handwritten words Yauch added to his will can be enforced, one has to know who owned the copyrights associated with his music.” This particular song is owned by the band and producer Rick Rubin so in this case Yauch’s will is irrelevant and the matter comes down to whether the use of the song is copyright infringement or not.
GoldieBlox upheld that “its parody video does not infringe any copyrights held by Defendants and is protected by the Fair Use Doctrine” and that it “created its parody video with specific goals to make fun of the Beastie Boys song, and to further the company’s goal to break down gender stereotypes and to encourage young girls to engage in activities that challenge their intellect, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.” This sounds like a noble cause but we will have to wait and see what happens. In the meantime, New York Magazine offers food for thought on the matter by reminding us that, at the end of the day, GoldieBlox is a business whose “adversaries are a group of musicians who aren’t being compensated for their work when someone else stands to profit. For a company dedicated to creativity and ideas and innovation, intellectual property seems like a worthy value — even when it’s made by stinky boys.”