Tables Finally Turn: Miami Base, Stolen Music, and the First Amendment

Black people have undeniably had the biggest influence in contemporary music. Any genre you can think of: Country, Jazz, Gospel, The Blues, Rock & Roll, R & B, and of course Hip Hop, all have roots in Black Culture. Despite Black Culture’s contribution to music, the music business hasn’t always credited Black artists for their work, and the law has failed to support Black artists as well. This concept is recurring on my blog because it’s pretty serious. At least to me. Check out my post on Chance the Rapper and Contract Law for more on some of the ways in which Contract law has undermined Black music and artistry.

Similarly, Intellectual Property law has also failed many Black artists. We’ve all seen the movies where a record label executive brings a group of white teenagers into a meeting with a Black group in hopes to get the Black group to agree to whitewash their music. Or, a group just steals the music outright.This movie example is also recurring on my blog because—well, I like music movies. A lot. And all of the ones about Black music have a scene where someone steals their music, or takes advantage of them contractually, probably because it was such a regular occurrence in the music industry.

Anywho, prior to the 1970s, Jim Crow racism made it especially easy to take advantage of Black artists.

Of course today, the laws are much more sophisticated and fair than they were during Jim Crow. Also, access to information and technological information makes it less likely that a person will no nothing about how the music industry works. Thanks to internets. Stealing music, and even sampling an artist’s music could cost you millions. Just ask Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams.

So, being a Miami girl, I was particularly excited when I learned about the Uncle Luke case during my 1L year of law school at Emory. Uncle Luke, whose government name is Luther Campbell is a Miami music legend, philanthropist and one of the founders of Miami Bass Music. Today in Miami he’s most celebrated for his philanthropy and mentorship to young Black men. Luke is the President of the Liberty City Warriors Optimist Club in Miami. But about a generation earlier he was making some of the most popular hip-hop music in the South. Luke’s music was and is known for it’s raunchy and sexually explicit lyrics. Many of his songs were on my mama’s list of “you bet not be listening to that in my house” music. In 1994, he and his group, the 2-Live Crew were sued by a record company that claimed the 2-Live Crew violated Federal Copyright Law. In other words, the record company wanted to get paid because the 2-Live Crew used their music. Oh, how the tables have turned

.

2_Live_Crew
2-Live Crew at a photo shoot wearing University of Miami gear like only a Miami Native would.

 

Here are the facts:

Luke and the other members of the 2-Live Crew (Fresh Kidd Ice, Mr. Mixx, and Brother Marquis) release a song called “Pretty Woman” in 1989. The song was a parody of “Oh Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison. The group asked for permission to use the song, but the record label, Acuff Music, refused. The group released the song anyway, and then Acuff sued them. But not until almost a year and a quarter million copies later.

So what happened in court?

The court case was pretty tumultuous. The District Court ruled in favor of the 2-Live Crew. They granted them Summary Judgement, meaning they didn’t actually argue the facts of the case in a trial. The court explained that the 2-Live Crew’s use of the song was a parody of the original song and protected under the Fair Use doctrine.

Acuff appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling. They thought that the 2-Live crew version used “the heart” of the original song and because of its commercial purposes.

 

1514_foto1_product_groot
One of the many album covers for the album “Oh Pretty woman”, which shared the name of the song at issue. The original was released in 1964, more than 20 years before the 2-Live Crew parody.

Then the case went to the Supreme Court which is in itself amazing because so few cases are heard by the Supreme Court. The Supreme reversed Acuff’s win, ruling that “Pretty Woman” was not an infringement based on the improper analysis of the Appeals court. They sent the case back down to the lower courts and the partied eventually settled out of court.

 

So Who Cares?

Well for starters, I do. But in the grand scheme of things, this was a win for the culture. Black Culture. So often, Hip-Hop and Black Culture, in general, is overlooked for its contribution, stolen from, criminalized, underestimated, under-credited. Campbell has become thee standard for copyright law and fair use cases. I learned of it writing my 1st law school brief.

The 2-Live Crew was a small group of Black men out of slums of Miami, Florida. Luke Skyywalker records was a tiny Black owned record company started by Luke Campbell, in hopes to be self-sufficient and to contain Black wealth.

 

Sources:

Feautured Photo via: complex.com

17 U.S. Code § 501

17 U.S. Code § 107

Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music (92-1292), 510 U.S. 569 (1994).

 

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