Who owns the rights to the sound of “oh?”
That’s what was at stake when the rapper Jay Z was sued last year over his 2009 song “Run This Town,” which is best known for Kanye West dropping a verse that far outshines his boss:
The suit was brought by an outfit called TufAmerica, over the sound of a single vowel: the “oh” sound sampled from a 1969 track, “Hook And Sling – Part 1,” by Eddie Bo:
Bo died in 2009, but TufAmerica bought the rights to the track in 1996. The company has a record of buying the rights to old songs and then seeks payment from those who it claims have infringed on the intellectual property. (This is not dissimilar to patent trolling in the tech world.) TufAmerica has previously sued Kanye West over his sampling of the same song, which West settled, as well as the Beastie Boys.
It has also sued Frank Ocean over his song, ”Super Rich Kids:”
This was over a sample from Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love:”
Which, in turn, sampled that fantastic staple of hip-hop beats throughout history, the Honeydrippers’ 1973 classic “Impeach the President:”
The foundations of hip-hop are built on sampling old funk tracks—and the great producers like Pete Rock, Kanye West, and DJ Premier have all built their careers on the art of flipping a sample. Rick Rubin’s early samples were from heavy metal songs. These kinds of lawsuits bring the whole multi-billion-dollar industry of rap into question.
Rather than settle, Jay Z fought TufAmerica in court. And the law sided with the rapper. Judge Lewis Caplan, saying the use of the track qualified as fair use, said:
There is nothing inherently or especially important about ‘oh’ to the message conveyed by, or the theme presented… The word ‘oh’ is a single and commonplace word. Standing alone, it likely is not deserving of copyright protection.
So one vowel doesn’t count. But in 2005, a court found that a two-second sample from Funkadelic’s “Get Off Your Ass and Jam” infringed the band’s copyright in NWA’s “100 Miles and Runnin’.” Look for more court cases to settled this gray area sampling between a syllable and two seconds.
Not that Jay Z has much time to celebrate the decision with a bottle of Armand de Brignac. He has been sued for copyright infringement again—this time with his wife, Beyonce, over the first 15 seconds of “Drunk in Love.”