It’s been fairly common in recent years for recording companies to be sued over claims that an artist lacked permission to sample a piece of music. It’s far less common for them to be accused of paying the wrong rightsholder.
Yet that’s the situation with a lawsuit filed last Friday (May 26) in the US District Court for the southern district of New York, involving Migos’ 2018 hit Narcos.
Florida-based music label and rightsholder Keep On Kicking Music Ltd.’s complaint, obtained by MBW, states that Capitol Records, Motown Records and Quality Control Music – the labels that released Migos’ album Culture II, which includes the track Narcos – got permission from the wrong rightsholder when they sampled Espoir Composition X, a 1978 instrumental track released by the Haitian band Les Difficiles de Pieton-Ville.
The lawsuit seeks at least $4 million in compensation from the defendants, among them Universal Music Group, which owns Capitol and Motown, as well as UMG’s publishing arm.
According to the complaint, Quality Control Music entered into an agreement with Idaly Publishing in 2018 to license the use of Espoir Composition X on Narcos. However, the complaint contends that Idaly doesn’t own the rights to Espoir Composition X – Keep On Kicking Music does.
As evidence, the lawsuit cites a letter from Idaly’s attorney – purportedly sent to UMG, among others – stating that the company “rescinds and relinquishes its claims to any of the music publishing rights, title or interest, including the copyright” to Espoir Composition X.
However, “when plaintiffs put defendants on express written notice that they were infringing upon [Espoir Composition X], the defendants refused to acknowledge plaintiffs’ rights and to compensate plaintiffs for the harm suffered,” the complaint alleges.
The lawsuit notes that the two major US rights-collection organizations, BMI and ASCAP, declined to divert the royalties originally meant for Idaly to Keep On Kicking Music “without the consent of defendants or a court order.”
The complaint cites two expert reports, one which states that 90% of the bars in Narcos contain a sample of Espoir Composition X, and another that states that the track “is used in 3 minutes and 33 seconds out of the total of 4 minutes and 46 seconds of Narcos, showing that Narcos uses [Espoir Composition X] for 74.4% of the time.”
“Although the musical term that characterizes this infringement is called sampling, it actually represents a wholesale use of [Espoir Composition X] in Narcos,” the complaint argues.
Narcos was a moderate hit for rap trio Migos when it was released in 2018, reaching number 36 on Billboard’s US Hot 100, and number 17 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop charts. However, the album it was on, Culture II, was a major success, debuting at No.1 on the US Billboard 200.
According to the complaint, Espoir Composition X was recorded in 1978 by Robert Martino, a member of Les Difficiles de Pieton-Ville, and released in France and elsewhere by label Cinedisc under the band’s name. The complaint says Martino registered the track with France’s SACEM in 2000, and Keep On Kicking Music bought the rights at some point after that, recording its copyright claim in the US in 2021 and 2023.
Keep On Kicking Music is listed as the publisher of a number of prominent musical works, including Cee-Lo Green… Is the Soul Machine, as well as the Black-Eyed Peas’ Monkey Business and Fatboy Slim’s LateNightTales.
The lawsuit is just the latest in a series of music copyright suits filed in the past several months, including one by Ghanaian rapper Obrafour against Drake, for alleged unauthorized use of Obrafour’s material on Calling My Name.
Another suit alleged that up-and-coming hip-hip artist GloRilla’s tracks Tomorrow and Tomorrow 2 borrowed from a 1990s rap track called Street of Westbank.
Rappers 50 Cent and Fat Joe, along with producer Scott Storch, are facing a lawsuit involving 50 Cent’s Candy Shop and Terror Squad’s Lean Back, alleging those tracks lifted from a 2003 underground rap tracks called WHATCHACOM4.
One of the biggest copyright-lawsuit developments recently was Ed Sheeran’s victory in a New York court in a case alleging his track Thinking Out Loud copied Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On.
It was the second time Sheeran went to court over the similarities between the two tracks, and the second time he prevailed.Music Business Worldwide