Copyright Infringement in US Musical Industry

Having the ability to protect intellectual property is crucial for both companies and individuals. In the U.S., the Copyright Act of 1976 is the primary legislation guiding people through various aspects of using other individuals’ work (“Copyright Law of the United States”). Although at first, the topic may appear straightforward, it is often difficult to distinguish whether usage of a particular material was made intentionally. For this reason, three cases that were brought to court in regards to the music industry will be presented in this piece and to identify guidelines for copyright in this field. This paper aims to research the history of copyright infringement and study three legal cases related to the topic.

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Legal Aspects

Copyright laws are necessary because they ensure that original authors of artworks, songs, books, or brands with their distinct identities can be credited for their efforts. Additionally, the law allows them to receive money for the pieces and ensure that people cannot profit from others’ work. Authors are allowed to be in charge of making copies and distributing their pieces, create variations of them, and perform them in public (“Summaries of Fair Use Cases”). At the same time, third parties are forbidden from such actions.

The issue of copyright infringement has become especially important in the digital era because copying and distributing art was made easier through the use of computers and the Internet. One of the legal cases that display this issue is a woman who was accused of downloading thirty songs through file-sharing services (“Summaries of Fair Use Cases”). It is important to note that there are limitations to copyright that enable public use of a property after a particular period. In general, copyright laws do not apply after seventy years from an author’s death have passed (“Measuring Fair Use: The Four Factors”). Additionally, a particular regulation in regards to music is in place because each piece produced before January 01, 1923, can be used freely.

While understanding the ethical role and importance of intellectual property is essential, having adequate laws to protect the matter is crucial. In the U.S., copyright and its infringement are regulated by the Copyright Act of 1976, while Title 17 of the United States Code codifies the legislative initiative (“Copyright Law of the United States”). In addition, the Copyright Office oversees matters connected to the issue. The institution was created in 1897 by the Congress of the U.S. (“Overview of the Copyright Office”). The scope of the Office’s operations is varied; personnel has to research and register various works, including music, books, journals, movies, and others.

To understand the issue to the full extent, one must define the legal terms accurately. Firstly, according to Netanel, a copy is identified by Section 101 as a fixation of previous work by any method known or recently developed. Phonorecords are excluded from the definition; thus, such material is not considered part of the intellectual property infringement issue. However, components made by printing, videotaping, anything saved and sent through an email, or copied by any other method is considered a violation of the law. According to Netanel, the term “infringe” implies an act of violation in regards to five rights – “reproduction, preparation of a derivative work, public distribution, public performance, and public display” (17). These definitions can be used to determine the legal aspect of copyright issues.

Parody cases are an essential aspect of this legal problem because they allow using small portions of other people’s work to display a particular point. According to the Stanford University Library, “parodying more than a few lines of a song lyric is unlikely to be excused as fair use” (“Measuring Fair Use: The Four Factors”). This aspect is essential because it provides people with an opportunity to comment, criticize, or submit another form of opinion on other people’s work while mentioning their piece. The distinction is made between using a small part of the material and having a significant and substantial portion of work copied.

While the laws restrict individuals from violating other’s intellectual property by copying it, such cases do occur. To protect his or her rights, the original author must seek help from a federal court. In such cases, judges use four factors to identify whether a claim is an example of fair use or not. The components of the decision-making process are purpose and character of usage, nature of the original work, a portion of the piece that was copied, and effect on the potential market (“Measuring Fair Use: The Four Factors”). While the four are essential in the issue, they are only guidelines; therefore, particular judges can adapt their meaning in regards to their understanding of the topic. This aspect implies that outcomes of fair use cases are difficult to predict.

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History of Copyright Infringement in the U.S.

Before the copyright laws were enacted and the Copyright Office of the U.S. was created, the problem was handled by the Librarian of the Congress. According to the government agency, “from 1870-1896, the Librarian of Congress administered copyright registration (at that time mostly books) directly, and earlier still, from 1790-1896, U.S. district courts were responsible for doing so (“Overview of the Copyright Office”). The issue has become more complicated over the years because nowadays not only books have to be protected by the law. Due to this fact, the current Office’s responsibilities include registering licenses, recognizing both them and specific titles, and statutory licenses provision.

Music Industry Copyright

The music industry is filled with examples of intellectual property violations; thus, much can be learned from these examples. According to the Runtagh, some discover that “there’s a blurred line between inspiration and theft” by having to defend their actions in court. The aspect points out that copyright infringement can sometimes be committed unintentionally; however, this does not free from responsibility for the activities. Famous singers and songwriters such as Robin Thicke, Pharrell, Madonna, Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, and many others were caught in legal battles over their work.

It should be noted that with many of the cases that will be presented below, an issue in question is a chord progression, which is often typical for a particular genre. For instance, Runtagh states that in pop, a melody pattern known as I-III-IV-iv can be heard in many of the well-known pieces. Therefore, other aspects of fair use should be considered in such cases to determine whether a violation was in place.

Case 1 – Joel McDonald v. Kanye West, et al.

The first case is connected to two famous songs, both titled “Made in America.” The case is interesting because it displays a struggling musician who had to defend his work in court against well-known rappers. Plaintiff Joel R. McDonald claimed that he had sold a copy of his album to one of the defendants. Later that year, a song titled “Made in America” appeared on Kanye West’s album. Joel McDonald claimed that his work was infringed and filed a lawsuit in the district of New York in 2014.

The lawyers of deference “brought a motion under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 12(b)(6) to dismiss plaintiff’s amended complaint,” the motion was granted by the court (“Joel McDonald v. Kanye West, et al.”). Court of Appeal stated that the decision of the district court was correct, and Joel McDonald’s claims were dismissed.

The issue, in this case, was connected to legal standards of copyright infringement. Thus, the court focused on addressing whether the similarities between the two songs were substantial to claim infringement. The decision was based on allowing listeners to determine the similarities between the two works. In the end, the court decided that the part of Joel McDonald’s work used by West and other writers was uncopyrightable. In addition, the jury did not find that two “Made in America” songs sounded similar.

Case 2 – Estate of James Oscar Smith v. Cash Money Records, et al.

The second case highlights two famous artists in their legal battle against each other. The Estate of James Oscar Smith claimed that Drake copied a substantial part of Oscar’s song in his work “Pound Cake’ (“Estate of James Oscar Smith v. Cash Money Records, et al.”). Drake has used Oscar’s monologue in his song; however, he interpreted it by substituting some parts. In particular, he interchanged the word “music” for “jazz.” According to the four fair use claims mentioned above, this could be a reason to claim fair use because the meaning of the original piece was changed.

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Plaintiff’s motion was denied in this case because the judge did not find that the action was unjustly violating the original work. In addition, the judge stated that the two parties had not determined the actual aspect of copyright infringement.

An important issue of this case is that Drake obtained a license for the song in question; however, it did not allow using lyrics from the original song. It was claimed in court that the plaintiff was aware of the error and waited until the song’s release to file a lawsuit intentionally. However, when commenting on the work, Cronin stated that “Drake’s song wasn’t parodic,” thus, providing a topic for further disputes on the problem (“Estate of James Oscar Smith v. Cash Money Records, et al.”). Therefore, two opposing views on this case exist; on the one hand, the defendant was willing to credit the original author of the song. While on the other the judge’s ruling raises questions regarding the parody aspect of fair use.

Case 3 – Armour v. Knowles

The final example displays another legal battle between an aspiring singer and a well-established pop star. Jennifer Armour filed a lawsuit against Beyonce due to the fact that her song “Got a Little Bit of Love for You” had similarities to a piece titled “Baby Boy” (“Armour v. Knowles 512 F.3d 147 (5th Cor. 2007)”). The singer registered copyright for instrumental and acapella versions of her music prior. As the plaintiff claims, her manager had sent tapes with the recording to people associated with Beyonce; however, he never received feedback from them. Armour filed a copyright infringement lawsuit claiming that Beyonce copied a substantial amount of her work without proper credit.

In this case, the defendants claimed that no proper explanation of the copyright issue in question was made, thus stating that the lawsuit was a summary judgment. With the help of a jury, the court established that no distinct similarities between the two songs could be found. Three crucial aspects were determining the outcomes of this case. It is critical to proving that defendant could have access to the copyrighted material, as well as establish similarities, and provide copyright license for the song (“Armour v. Knowles 512 F.3d 147 (5th Cor. 2007)”). Armour failed to prove these aspects; thus, her lawsuit was dismissed by the court.


In theory, the question of intellectual property and copyright infringement appears to be easily resolvable. It is ethically correct to grant original authors proper credit for their work. However, as was highlighted by the cases, the practical aspect of the issue differs. In three cases, plaintiffs’ claims regarding infringement were dismissed by the court because no substantial similarities were found. Thus, my opinion of copyright infringement is that one must be thoroughly prepared to defend rights for his or her work in court, as the matter of intentional copying is difficult to prove. The unpredictable aspect of these cases is the jury’s opinion, as in two out of three cases, the jury was determining similarities between the two pieces.

The lawsuits in question highlighted another aspect of copyright that can be applied without regard for fair use. In the trial of James Oscar Smith versus Drake, claims were made that the plaintiff was aware of the copying due to the fact that the defendant obtained a license for the song. The case raised questions regarding the protection of fair use as an essential aspect of art. It is evident that musicians often utilize or get inspired by previous works, and fair use allows them to do so correctly.

The history of copyright infringement highlights that the need for such legislative initiative has existed for decades. It can be argued that in the times preceding the Copyright Act and Copyright Office; intellectual property infringement was more accessible to detect and prove. The digital age has brought many challenges that alternate approaches to the issue. It is much easier to copy and distribute works and more challenging to locate violators. Although, as was mentioned previously, the law states that any form of copying by existing or further developed methods is illegal, it is unclear what direction copyright infringement would take in the future.


Overall, copyright protection is crucial for ensuring that people can protect their intellectual property. However, the issue in question consists of many intangible aspects, making an efficient execution of law complicated for both plaintiffs and judges. The legislation that regulates the problem is the 1976 Copyright Act, while Copyright Office oversees matters of licensing. Four fair use statements can help in identifying law violations; however, those can be interpreted differently by judges.

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The three cases presented in the paper display possible copyright issues that occur in the music industry. The lawsuits were dismissed because no substantial evidence of unfair use or distinct similarities were presented to the court. From the outcomes, a conclusion can be made that copyright infringement cases involve various intangible aspects, which are difficult to prove in practice.

Works Cited

“Armour v. Knowles 512 F.3d 147 (5th Cor.).” Music Copyright Infringement Resource, n.d. Web.

“Copyright Law of the United States.” Copyright, n.d. Web.

“Estate of James Oscar Smith v. Cash Money Records, et al.” Music Copyright Infringement Resource, n.d. Web.

“Joel McDonald v. Kanye West, et al.” Music Copyright Infringement Resource, n.d. Web.

“Measuring Fair Use: The Four Factors.” Stanford University Libraries, n.d. Web.

Netanel, Neil. Copyright: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2018.

“Overview of the Copyright Office.” Copyright, n.d. Web.

Runtagh, Jordan. “Songs on Trial: 12 Landmark Music Copyright Cases.Rolling Stone. Web.

Summaries of Fair Use Cases.Stanford University Libraries, n.d. Web.

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