Karlsruhe, Germany: Germany’s highest court Tuesday struck down a challenge by electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk against a hip-hop artist’s two-second sample of their tune in a dispute that erupted almost two decades ago.
The landmark ruling by the constitutional court acknowledges the essential place that the practice of sampling has in the hip-hop genre and gives artists greater freedom to use small segments from recorded tunes.
If the impact on the usage rights of the intellectual property owner is “negligible, then artistic freedom overrides the interest of the owner of the copyright,” said the court.
At the heart of the dispute is a short drum sequence looped repeatedly in the song Nur mir (Only Me) by rap artist Sabrina Setlur, also famous for her past relationship with German former tennis star Boris Becker.
The sequence originally came from Kraftwerk’s 1977 releaseMetall auf Metall (Metal on Metal).
Since the release of Nur mir in 1997, Kraftwerk’s lead singer Ralf Huetter has been battling over the rights of the sequence against the producer Moses Pelham.
The electronic music veterans had already won German court backing for damages and an injunction over the song, but Pelham and Setlur appealed and brought the case to the country’s top court claiming it infringed artistic freedom.
At the court hearing in Karlsruhe in November, Huetter insisted that the commandment “thou shalt not steal” applied also to music.
Founded by Huetter and Florian Schneider in the western German city of Duesseldorf in 1970, Kraftwerk spearheaded synthesizer music and went on to have a profound influence on the likes of David Bowie, Joy Division and Depeche Mode.
In the court battle, Pelham argued that sampling is common practice in the hip hop genre.
He said he works from a set of interesting music sequences and was not aware at the time that the sample in question stemmed from Kraftwerk’s work.
Germany’s constitutional court acknowledged sampling as one of the “style-defining elements” of hip-hop in overturning the previous court verdict that was in favour of Kraftwerk.
It noted that imposing royalties on composers could be crippling as copyright owners can demand any amount, or they can simply reject the request for usage.
Composers should be allowed to create works without any financial risks or restrictions in the creative process, argued the court.
Sampling is therefore permitted if it is part of a new composition that does not stand in direct competition to the sampled work, and does not hurt the music patent owners financially, the German court found.
Hip-hop artists are particularly vulnerable to such copyright rows, as sampling is an integral part of their music although they are usually required to seek permission to use elements of recordings.
In May, Kanye West became the target of lawsuit filed by a Hungarian artist Gabor Presser, who said the rap superstar sampled his music without permission or royalties.
Presser was seeking at least $2.5 million in damages plus legal expenses over Kanye West’s track New Slaves.
Another Hungarian, folk singer Monika Juhasz Miczura, has filed a separate lawsuit against Beyonce for allegedly