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Judge trims down sample lawsuit over Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam

By | Published on Monday 20 January 2020

Kanye West

A judge has ruled on efforts by Kanye West to trim down the unlicensed sample lawsuit in relation to his 2016 track ‘Ultralight Beam’. The rapper got some of what he wanted, but not all.

West and Universal Music were sued last year over a short spoken word recording that appears at the start of the ‘Life Of Pablo’ track. That recording features the voice of a young child in prayer with an adult voice responding. It was sampled from an Instagram video uploaded by the child’s mother back in 2016.

West’s people did approach the mother, Alice T Johnson, about sampling the audio from her Instagram post. However, in last year’s lawsuit the child’s adoptive parents – Andrew and Shirley Green – argued that Johnson didn’t actually have the authority to allow the girl’s voice to be used in the record. And even if she did, paperwork and payment in relation to the sample that were verbally promised to Johnson never materialised.

In a legal filing last month West’s team tried to get various elements of the case dismissed. Firstly, the Greens’ claim for statutory damages, which would result in a bigger payday for the child and her family if the lawsuit is successful. Team West argued that statutory damages should not apply in this case because the sampled recording hadn’t been registered with the US Copyright Office when the rapper sampled it.

On that point, the judge said that there was not sufficient clarity on what paperwork was filed when to decide how US copyright rules on the infringement of newly registered works should be applied.

“Based on the factual allegations”, the judge wrote, “it is premature for the court to determine whether plaintiffs’ claims for statutory damages and attorney’s fees are barred under [copyright rules]. The court will determine this issue during the course of litigation and after additional briefing. As such, defendants’ motion is denied without prejudice as to plaintiffs’ claim for statutory damages and attorney’s fees”.

However, another of West’s requests was granted by the court. The adult whose voice is heard in the sampled clip, Andreia Green, was also named as a plaintiff on the original lawsuit. But she was not included as a co-owner of the recording when it was registered with the Copyright Office so could not be part of the litigation, Team West argued.

Although the Greens are seeking to amend their copyright registration to include Andreia as a co-author, the judge ruled: “A copyright infringement claim cannot be based on a registration application. As Andreia Green is not registered as the owner of the copyright at issue, she cannot bring infringement claims based on it”.

There were some other matters considered in last week’s ruling too, though across the judgement both sides had equal wins and losses. It now remains to be seen what happens as the remaining case continues to go through the motions.