Judge Finds Biz Markie Guilty of Copyright Infringement – Today in Hip-Hop
On this day, Dec. 17, in hip-hop history...
1991: Following a legal battle stemming from a lawsuit over legendary New York rapper, DJ, beatboxer and hype-man Biz Markie's rights to the use of singer-songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 ballad, "Alone Again (Naturally)," a Federal judge made a ruling on Dec. 17, 1991, that would change hip-hop forever.
Throughout hip-hop's rise to mainstream prominence in the '70s and '80s, the genre's claim to fame was its use of previously recorded songs to create its unique sound. In fact, the practice that has become known as "sampling," was the very essence of hip-hop production since it was created by DJ Kool Herc in that sweaty rec room on Sedgewick Ave. in the Bronx back in August of 1973. As hip-hop became more and more popular, and the use of artists' songs from other genres became more and more frequent, the people who originally made the songs were becoming increasingly vocal in their pursuit of compensation for the use of their copyrighted material. At the time, the legality of sampling wasn't all that defined and for the most part, any arguments between artists over samples were settled internally. That was, of course, until 1991 when the courts became involved.
In August of 1991, Biz Markie, who had already established himself in the game between his work a member of the Juice Crew and his platinum single, "Just A Friend," dropped his third studio album, I Need A Haircut. The album was already not performing as well as expected when shortly after its release, the Clown Prince of Hip-Hop was hit with a lawsuit from Irish artist Gilbert O'Sullivan over one of the LP's songs titled, "Alone Again." The suit claimed that the song contained both piano elements and an almost word-for-word adaptation of the hook from O'Sullivan's No. 1 single, "Alone Again (Naturally)."
As the story goes, Biz and Warner Bros. reached out for permission to use the elements of the 1972 hit prior to the release of I Need A Haircut, but when Gilbert O'Sullivan turned them down, they put the "Alone Again" track on the album anyway. The legal battle ensued and the case of Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc. would ultimately be decided in favor of Gilbert O'Sullivan.
On Dec. 17, 1991, Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy ruled that Biz Markie and Warner Bros. were guilty of copyright infringement and were required to pay $250,000 in damages and remove the song from the I Need A Haircut album. The landmark ruling set a precedent that from that point on, samples not only had to be cleared with the copyright owner, but that the copyright owners were also entitled to a percentage if not all of the new work's royalties. Needless to say, this shifted the way hip-hop, and the music industry as a whole, conducted its business.
As for Biz Markie, the whole ordeal was certainly a set back for the often-comedic storyteller, but also made way for his next album, the appropriately titled, All Samples Cleared, which was released in 1993.
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