A Closer Look at the Beastie Boys' Lawsuit Against Monster Energy (Analysis)

Beastie Boys black and white L
Phil Andelman

On Wednesday, Beastie Boys filed a lawsuit against Monster Energy Drink, alleging that the beverage company used their songs in a promotional campaign without permission. Within a day came the blaring headlines. One example? "The Ghost of Beastie Boys’ MCA Protects Legacy From Corporate Sabotage."

But hold up -- check your head, what's really going on here?

Many reporters framed the dispute this way: Monster Energy created a promotional video exploiting the Beastie Boys' good name and songs including "Pass the Mic," "So Whatcha Want" and "Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun."

That's one way to put it. Here's another.

On May 5, an event called Ruckus in the Rockies was held in Lake Louise, Alberta. The event happened just a day after the Beasties' Adam "MCA" Yauch died at 47. At the event was DJ Z-Trip, a jockey who has been featured on MTV and who appears to be a figure in the same scratch community that Beastie Boys have long fostered. At the Ruckus in the Rockies, it's been reported that various DJs including Z-Trip paid tribute to Yauch.

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Now, on to the complaint that was filed in New York federal court.

The surviving Beasties, Michael "Mike D" Diamond and Adam "Ad-Roc" Horovitz, and the executor of the Yauch estate say that May 9 --  four days after the Alberta event -- "Monster caused a link to a downloadable audio recording (the "MP3") embodying a 23-minute medley of excerpts from the Beastie Boys Sound Recordings, the Beastie Boys Musical Compositions and the sound recordings and musical compositions comprising the additional Beastie Boys MP3 Copyrights … in conjunction with the Video, together with an offer that the MP3 was available for free download."

Note the words "medley of excerpts." In other words, one of the big allegedly infringing works in question was a mixtape comprised of samples.

Which isn't to say the band doesn't hold legitimate rights or strong claims that would prohibit such a mixtape recording -- more on that in a second -- but keep in mind that this is the same band that was sued a day before Yauch died for allegedly illegally sampling tunes. When that happened, the plaintiff in that case was roundly jeered in the press, on blogs and on social media sites. What about the Beasties' fair use, asked some?

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Of course, the claims go beyond mere illicit sampling of copyrighted work. The sampled songs in question were packaged along with a video, so the band alleges the work was "synchronized" -- legal speak for the rights needed to match music with visuals.

And Monster is alleged to have used the promotional video, and caused others to take MP3s, with text that suggested some form of endorsement from the band. According to the complaint, the text reads: "With tracks from the Beastie Boys putting you in the vibe and a sponsorship from Monster Energy, this edit will make you want to ride and party like no other. Beastie Boys mega mix by Z-trip, Download 'All-Access A Beastie Boys Megamix' here."

Will Monster's use of the Beastie Boys name cause "irreparable harm" to their trademarks, and will consumers -- as the band claims -- be "confused into believing that plaintiffs sponsored, endorsed and are associated with defendant Monster"?

Finally, this lawsuit is more than just about copyrights and trademarks. The band also asserts a violation of New York Civil Rights Law §51, the state's version of a publicity rights statute. According to the complaint, "Plaintiffs Diamond's and Horovitz's voices and style of singing are recognizable and distinctive and have generated a great deal of positive publicity and public response to sound recordings of their voices."

Yes, two of the three Beasties are claiming rights over their voices, which isn't the first time it's happened -- ask Tom Waits or Bette Midler -- but is unusual.

Also, notice which member is not included in the above claim. No MCA. Could it be because in cases that involved Marilyn Monroe, New York courts have been skeptical that its state laws allow celebrities to devise by will their publicity rights? Never mind the news that has also just came out that says that in Yauch's just-made-public will, he banned the use of his image, music and art in advertising.

We can't settle the issue of whether the ghost of MCA is really protecting his legacy. Others can make that call. But the details of this dispute are far more interesting and thought-provoking than most have thus far suggested.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner