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Beastie Boys gain summary judgement on TufAmerica case

By | Published on Thursday 26 March 2015

Beastie Boys

The Beastie Boys have emerged victorious from a lawsuit accusing them of copyright infringement over unauthorised samples on their 1989 album, ‘Paul’s Boutique’.

As previously reported, the day before Beastie Boy Adam Yauch died in 2012, often litigious US label TufAmerica sued the group alleging that they had sampled without permission songs by American band Trouble Funk on their 1989 tracks ‘Shadrach’ and ‘Hold It Now Hit It’. The company said that it had taken control of the rights to the Trouble Funk catalogue via an administration deal in 1999.

Launching legal action against the Beastie Boys in 2012, TufAmerica said it had only just become aware of the infringement. And in 2013, a judge refused to dismiss the case, saying that there had been “qualitatively and quantitatively significant” use of the Trouble Funk tracks, therefore meaning the Beastie Boys had to answer the case.

But last year the surviving members of the rap group hit back, questioning what copyrights TufAmerica actually controlled in the sampled records.

The defendants argued that in 1984 Trouble Funk had signed to Island Records, now a Universal Music label. Meanwhile two of the group’s members signed a publishing deal with a company ultimately acquired by Polygram, now Universal Music Publishing. And what label released ‘Paul’s Boutique’? Capitol, now part of, you guessed it, Universal Music. Indeed, Universal was co-defendant on the case.

Questions about what TufAmerica did and did not control put the focus on its contracts with Trouble Funk members Robert Reed, Tony Fisher and James Avery. The former two allied with TufAmerica in 1999, but Avery only signed up in 2012, meaning that until that point the company didn’t have exclusive rights in Trouble Funk songs (which, with hindsight, possibly explains why it didn’t sue until 2012).

But even then there was a problem for TufAmerica, because of the nature of Avery’s contract. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Avery deal only granted the music company the ‘right to sue’ on the band member’s behalf, rather than giving it control of his rights, which – ruled US District Judge Alison Nathan – is not sufficient for a case of this kind.

“Putting aside the issue of whether the 2012 agreement and 1999 agreements can be read together, the 2012 agreement conveys nothing more than the bare right to sue”, wrote the judge. “It has long been the rule that [w]here … an agreement transfers nothing more than the bare right to sue … [it] cannot be the basis for standing under the Copyright Act”.

And so, basically, TufAmerica hasn’t got a leg to stand on.