Sony Music Publishing is being sued by indie publisher Peermusic for a cut of the profits from Lizzo’s 2022 hit About Damn Time.
A new lawsuit has been filed against the major publisher in the US over who owns the rights to (and who is owed royalties from) a sample used in the track.
According to the suit, which you can read in full here, that sample comes from Hey DJ, a 1984 track co-written by Malcolm McLaren, the legendary band manager credited with bringing the Sex Pistols to fame, as well as the bands New York Dolls and Bow Wow Wow.
In the 1980s, McLaren became a musician in his own right, and co-wrote Hey DJ with Larry Price (a.k.a. DJ Sedivine the Mastermind), Ronald Larkins Jr. (a.k.a. Just Allah the Superstar) and producer Stephen Hague.
McLaren died in 2010 at age 64, and the rights to his music are owned by a company called Satisfaction Fulfilled Ltd. (SFL), which, according to information available on UK Companies House, is managed by Young Kim, the head of McLaren’s estate.
SFL and the company that administers its rights – Peermusic (UK) Ltd. – are suing Sony Music Publishing, alleging that Sony effectively cut them out of receiving a share of the royalties from Lizzo’s About Damn Time.
The claim notes that the three composers of Hey DJ other than McLaren – Hague, Larkins and Price – are all affiliated with Sony.
Lizzo isn’t named in the lawsuit, nor is her label, Atlantic Records.
In a complaint filed in the US District Court for the southern district of New York on Friday (April 21), the rightsholders of McLaren’s music said that they had been approached by Alien Music Services, a rights clearinghouse, on behalf of Atlantic Records to get their consent to sample Hey DJ on About Damn Time. Alien also reached out to Sony about the rights.
The complaint alleges that McLaren’s rightsholders consented to the use of the sample, but at the last minute, Alien withdrew the contract it had sent to SFL and Peermusic – because Sony was now claiming that McLaren wasn’t one of the authors of the track that Lizzo had sampled.
“Tellingly, even though Sony had had months to review the details of the request, its … claim was not asserted until May 9, 2022, about a week after About Damn Time hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart,” the complaint states.
“Sony had never before questioned, let alone negated or repudiated, McLaren’s authorship of, or Peer/SFL’s ownership or control of, the music at issue.”
At the heart of the dispute is the fact that the Hey DJ single featured two instrumental versions of the track on its B-side. These instrumentals didn’t credit McLaren as a co-writer, crediting only the other three songwriters.
According to the complaint, Sony asserted that it was one of these B-side instrumentals that was sampled by Lizzo, and not the vocal version on side A – hence McLaren’s estate being omitted from the royalty payouts.
But SFL and Peermusic argue that McLaren’s estate is still owed money.
They say the copyright on the B-side instrumentals is a “derivative” copyright of the original version of the song, as co-written by McLaren.
Additionally, the SFL/Peermusic lawsuit argues that “the excerpt sampled by Lizzo appears in the earlier created vocal version of [Hey DJ]”.
Adds the lawsuit: “The [US copyright] registration for the instrumental version of HDJ does not extend to any of the material in the original vocal version of HDJ, including the instrumental music or particular melodic phrase used by Lizzo.
“These preexisting elements were co-created by McLaren as one of four joint authors of the vocal version. McLaren’s 25% interest in this material is owned and administered by Peer/SFL, not Sony.”
The lawsuit doesn’t specify an amount to be granted in damages, and asks for 8.335% of the proceeds from About Damn Time.
Atlantic Records agreed to give one-third of proceeds from About Damn Time to the rights owners of Hey DJ, and – so the lawsuit argues – since McLaren is owed one-quarter of those rights, that amounts to 8.335% of the total proceeds of About Damn Time.
The lawsuit also asks for Sony to cover court costs and legal costs, and asks for payment for damages “to be determined at trial.”
About Damn Time, the lead single off Lizzo’s album Special, was one of the biggest hits of 2022.
It reached number one on the US Billboard Hot 100, and was a top 10 hit in many other countries, including the UK, Canada and Australia.
The lawsuit against Drake by rapper Obrafour – which alleges that Drake didn’t wait for permission to use a sample of an Obrafour track on his hit Calling My Name – is just one of many to have been filed in the past few years.
British pop sensation Dua Lipa was hit with a lawsuit last year that alleged her track Levitating ripped off a track by Florida reggae outfit Artikal Sound System.
US rappers DaBaby and Roddy Ricch were sued over their 2020 hit Rockstar by a producer named JuJU Beatz, who alleged Rockstar ripped off his track Selena.
These lawsuits don’t always succeed. Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino, won a lawsuit alleging that his 2018 hit This Is America ripped off an earlier track by rapper Kidd Wes called Made In America.
And Ed Sheeran successfully fended off a lawsuit over his track Shape of You, brought by a British artist named Sam Chokri (a.k.a Sami Switch), who claimed that Shape of You ripped off his 2015 track Oh Why.Music Business Worldwide