In a judgment likely to have far-reaching implications for the use of samples in the music industry, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that a rapper's use of a 2-second sample from Kraftwerk's 1977 track 'Metal On Metal' infringed the copyright in the original recording.
Kraftwerk started the legal action in 1999, and the proceedings have progressed through the German courts over the last 20 years, before finally being appealed to the ECJ. The lower courts had struggled to balance Kraftwerk's copyright against the rapper's right to "artistic freedom", but the ECJ has now provided definitive guidance: the copyright owner has the exclusive right to choose to authorise or prohibit reproduction of any part of its work, even a very short, 2-second "sample".
The ECJ clarified that for the "artistic freedom" exception to apply, a sample would have to be modified so that it was unrecognisable from the original. In that case, a suitably modified sample could be used without permission, but in all other cases, the copyright owner's permission would be needed to use a sample.
This decision is likely to have huge consequences in an increasingly sample-and-remix-heavy music industry, but it remains to be seen whether these pro-rights-owners principles will be applied across to other, non-musical, copyright and intellectual property right cases.
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Taking even very short extracts from a musical sequence will infringe copyright, unless they are modified to make them unrecognisable.