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Why The Rick Ross Case May Change Hip-Hop

Publication Date: 
February 12, 2013
Julia Carpenter

Julie Ahrens, director of Copyright and Fair Use at the Center for Internet and Society, spoke with Esquire's Julia Carpenter on how "fair use, parody and obscenity" will factor into a new lawsuit again musician Rick Ross, which accuses the rapper of failing to clear the necessary rights when sampling a gospel song in his single "3 Kings." 

Rick Ross may have to pay out for "3 Kings." Last week, two gospel songwriters, Clara Shepherd Warrick and Jimmy Lee Weary, filed a lawsuit against the rapper, along with Dr. Dre and Jay-Z, for sampling a gospel song in the Ross single. The suit claims Ross and others failed to clear the necessary rights when sampling the 1976 Crowns of Glory song "I'm So Grateful (Keep in Touch)," for which Weary is credited as a writer. The plaintiffs claim no one contacted Weary about the sample or compensated him.


As you probably already know, the music world is no stranger to such lawsuits. But the "3 Kings" case is a unique one. According to Julie Ahrens, director of Copyright and Fair Use at Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society, that's because such bandied-about issues as fair use, parody, and obscenity don't figure neatly with the suit and the parties involved.

For one, fair use probably can't defend the unlicensed sampling in "3 Kings." "Fair use covers using a work in a transformative way," Ahrens says, pointing to its prevailing in other hip-hops cases. "Whether you can just take three notes of a gospel song just because it sounds good — clearly you cannot do that... That's copying merely because it sounds good. There's a clearly-defined licensing market for things like this, particularly in rap music."

Not helping the situation is the popular music video, with almost 3.7 million hits on YouTube as of today, which, according to the lawsuit, "includes very graphic depictions of drug use, vulgarity, nudity, gun violence, criminal conduct, actions demeaning to women, and many other items that are certainly inconsistent with Plaintiffs' wishes for how Plaintiffs' song would be portrayed."

For its perceived bastardization of their original artistic intent, the plaintiffs want "3 Kings" completely wiped off the map, a move Ahrens thinks may be too severe to hold up in court. "Granting an injunction and giving the copyright holder the ability to stop the sale, reproduction, distribution of the song (and yes that could be all forms — removal of YouTube videos, downloads, CDs in stores, etc.) would be too much power, in my opinion," she says. "That's a draconian remedy for sampling a portion of another work. In our society we don't take censorship lightly."