Moby Sued Over 22-Year-Old Song Samples (Exclusive)

The plaintiff claims Moby incorporated unlicensed music on his early work.
Chris Godley

VMG Salsoul, a New York-based disco and funk record label, is attempting to once again rewind the clock to a time when sampling might have been a more legally-loose endeavor. Just four months after losing a lawsuit over Madonna's "Vogue," Salsoul has picked a new target -- Moby, alleged to have included improper samples on his 1992 songs "Next Is the E" and "Thousand."

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In a lawsuit filed in California on Monday, the plaintiff claims that both 22-year-old songs include unlicensed samples of "Let No Man Put Asunder," performed by Philadelphia girl group First Choice.

Salsoul lost its case against Madonna after a judge ruled that "no reasonable audience would find the sampled portions qualitatively or quantitatively significant in relation to the infringing work, nor would they recognize the appropriation." The Madonna case is now up on appeal.

A sample so artfully hidden as to be undetectable without advanced technology for two decades raises good legal issues, and if the sampling is de minimis -- as was the case of the allegedly stolen horn hit in the Madonna song -- there's no copyright liability.

Artists and record labels have become more diligent about clearing samples ever since a judge admonished "Thou shalt not steal" in the early 1990s, when Warner Bros. Records was sued over a sample of Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" in rapper Biz Markie's "Alone Again."

If that case wasn't enough of a warning, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeal slammed N.W.A.'s sample of Funkadelic's "Get Off Your Ass and Jam" in 2005. In that case, a Nashville appellate judge wrote, "Get a license or do not sample. We do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way."

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Still, many courts in the nation don't apply the same strict standard. Most lawsuits over sampling settle or go down quietly.

The latest legal action targets Moby (real name: Richard Melville Hall), Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Warner Music Group and Knitting Factory Records. The plaintiff demands statutory damages of up to $150,000 for each allegedly willful infringement plus profits and attorneys' fees.

Moby could not immediately be reached for comment.

Twitter: @eriqgardner