The Beastie Boys’ Greatest Legal Hits

The Beastie Boys need no introduction: seminal hip-hop artists from the birthplace of hip-hop who later morphed into genre-bending icons fusing sometimes disparate influences and sonic elements into a cohesive positive musical message.  This article is not an ode to the Beasties’ musical pursuits but rather a survey of their legal exploits throughout their careers, which seemed to go into overdrive this year with a series of settlements, verdicts, and legal maneuverings.

The Beasties’ legal batting average so far is stellar (3-0, with another looking like a “W” as well).  There are valuable legal lessons to be learned from each of these cases, some based on the legal holdings and some based on the facts. So without further ado, here are the Beasties' greatest legal hits:

  1. Newton v. Diamond

Lesson: Application of the copyright doctrine of de minimis use to digital sampling.

The Newton case (388 F.3d 1189 (9th Cir. 2004); "Diamond", of course, is Mike D.) garnered first place because of its implications for copyright law as it relates to sampling.  The case has been cited positively 30 times in federal courts in 10 states and Puerto Rico, and spawned law review articles as well.  The sample at issue, which appeared in the Beasties' song “Pass the Mic,” was a six-second, three-note segment from a performance of an accomplished jazz flutist. The Beasties obtained a license to sample the sound recording but not to the underlying composition.

The court said that quantitatively, the three-note sequence appeared only once in Newton’s composition, and qualitatively, it was no more significant than any other section.  Newton at 1195-1196.  Also, the fact that the Beasties looped the sample throughout "Pass the Mic" was irrelevant in weighing the sample's qualitative and quantitative significance. Id. at 1195.  The court found that the Beasties’ use of the sample was de minimis and therefore the copying was not significant enough to constitute infringement. Id. at 1196.

  1. Beastie Boys v. Monster Energy: Really Just a Case of “Ill Communication” (In the Literal Sense)

Lesson: (1) Just because you can copy doesn’t mean you may copy, and (2) “Dope” does not a contract make.

The Beasties’ suit against Monster Energy has a rather pedestrian legal plot: company uses copyrighted content without permission, artists sues, company fights, loses and has to pay.  The case is more interesting for the facts that gave rise to it, which were described in detail in an opinion granting summary judgment to the DJ at the heart of the case (Beastie Boys v. Monster Energy Company, 983 F.Supp.2d 338 (S.D.N.Y. 2013)).

DJ Z-Trip was hired by a Monster marketing director to DJ the company’s “Ruckus in the Rockies.”  During a brief backstage meeting, the marketing director said Monster wanted to make a video of the event and asked Z-Trip if he had any music they could use for the video.  Z-Trip suggested going to his website for a free download of a remix of Beasties’ songs he did for the group.  Beasties at 344-345.

The marketing director interpreted Z-Trip's invitation to download the song, plus conversations in another meeting and emails from the DJ, to mean he had Z-Trip’s (and the Beasties’) permission to use the remix in the video.  After the Beasties sued Monster, Monster sued Z-Trip for breach of contract and fraud.  In the court’s analysis, readers can enjoy the rare and entertaining treat of watching a judge analyze whether the word “dope” can be used to establish a contractual relationship.  Beastie Boys at 350.  In this case it did not, and Z-Trip won on summary judgment.  Beasties at 353.

The case illustrates how the rights of IP owners lurk behind the scenes of what has become the fungible commodity of content, and the lack of appreciation or understanding of those rights by the people who consume the content.  Some other issues come to mind: where was Monster’s in-house counsel? Didn’t they screen their advertising? These are scary questions to be asking about a company worth around $2B.

  1. The Goldie Blox Case

Lessons: (1) Again, just because you can copy doesn’t mean you may, (2) having “the best of intentions” ≠ a defense to copyright infringement, and (3) a cry of “fair use” is not the silver bullet many think it is.

The legal plot in the Goldie Blox case started off similar to Monster Energy: company blatantly uses copyrighted song.  However, Goldie Blox had the chutzpah to file a declaratory relief action after receiving a cease and desist letter from the Beasties.  Goldie Blox eventually withdrew their action; the parties settled, and the Beasties reportedly will take home at least a cool $1M.

A notable occurrence in this case was the rather cutesy but contrite mea culpa Goldie Blox posted on their website asking for understanding from the Beasties because their infringement was based on “the best of intentions.”  Clearly more an attempt to sway public opinion than a legitimate legal defense, the letter apparently fell on deaf ears.  Although the fair use argument Goldie Blox put forth will never be decided, it is important to note that there were still three other factors to consider in the fair use analysis besides whether the use was transformative or a parody, which may explain why Goldie blox dropped their suit.

  1. TufAmerica v. Diamond

Lesson: Joint authors/copyright owners need to communicate regularly regarding exploitation of their jointly owned works.

The TufAmerica case is another one, like Newton, where the Beasties appear as defendants based on their prolific sampling, this time from the album Paul’s Boutique.  The group Trouble Funk is the group whose music was sampled; TufAmerica is their assignee.  When the court allowed the case to proceed after denying in part the Beasties’ 12(b)(6) motion, it appeared the group might be back on their heels.

However, in a turn of events that can be characterized as a copyright Keystone Cops caper, new allegations surfaced that TufAmerica may not, in fact, even have the rights they are seeking to enforce.  A summary judgment motion filed by the Beasties presents the undisputed fact gleaned from the depositions of two Trouble Funk members that they signed an agreement with Universal in 1984 prohibiting any future assignments, thus calling into question the validity of TufAmerica’s agreement with the group.  Further, another Trouble Funk member entered into an agreement in 2012 with TufAmerica, unaware that other members had entered into an agreement with the company in 1999. Question: did TufAmerica realize it signed the same group twice? The decision on the motion is still pending.

This case draws attention to the importance of communication between joint authors when exploiting works, and the need for collaboration agreements for joint authors and band partnership agreements.  It is unclear whether or not Trouble Funk had such agreements between its members, but lucky for the Beasties, it seems they didn’t.

Photo "Beastieboys-sonar07" by Michael Morel - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Comments are closed.