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One word sample lawsuit against Jay-Z thrown out of court

By | Published on Thursday 11 December 2014


Jay-Z won a lawsuit earlier this week against New York-based TufAmerica, which sued the rapper just over a year ago alleging that he had sampled a track they now controlled without permission.

As it turned out, the alleged unlicensed sample was one syllable, the word “oh” taken from Eddie Bo’s track ‘Hook & Sling’, which appeared – “dozens of times” said TufAmerica – in Jay-Z’s Rihanna and Kanye-featuring track ‘Run This Town’ in 2009.

Lawyers for Jay-Z argued that there couldn’t possibly be copyright protection for the word “oh”, which the judge was prone to agree with. Though, while that would almost certainly be true if the word featured in isolation, there might be an argument for infringement if the word was used in a more or less identical way to the other track. And, of course, even if the word is not protected as a lyric, the second of sound recording sampled might have protection nevertheless.

But the judge overseeing the dispute decided that there wasn’t a case to answer here because the sample as alleged by TufAmerica was so much in the background of the Jay-Z track it was more or less impossible for the casual listener to hear. Said the judge, according to the New York Times, the word “oh” appeared “only in the background and in such a way as to be audible and aurally intelligible only to the most attentive and capable listener”.

The law on very short samples – whether focused on the publishing or recording copyrights – is at best ambiguous. Many would probably agree that in this case the judge got it right, though a legal rep for TufAmerica – which has pursued a number of sample-based infringement cases – unsurprisingly does not concur.

He told the New York Times: “Part of the problem is that courts don’t necessarily realise that a lot of hip hop is built on sampling. The way the law is set up now, it is to the detriment of the artist whose music has been sampled”.