The 9th Circuit Court affirmed today that a quarter-second sample used by Madonna didn’t infringe the copyright of the original artist. Billboard reports that 1990 hit Vogue’s use of a brass hit from 1976’s “Love Break” was so small as to be trivial.
“After listening to the audio recordings submitted by the parties, we conclude that a reasonable juror could not conclude that an average audience would recognize the appropriation of the horn hit,” writes 9th Circuit judge Susan Graber in today’s opinion. “That common-sense conclusion is borne out by dry analysis. The horn hit is very short—less than a second. The horn hit occurs only a few times in Vogue. Without careful attention, the horn hits are easy to miss. Moreover, the horn hits in Vogue do not sound identical to the horn hits from Love Break… Even if one grants the dubious proposition that a listener recognized some similarities between the horn hits in the two songs, it is hard to imagine that he or she would conclude that sampling had occurred.”
The ruling seems to run counter to other recent courtroom action where a song was found to infringe a Marvin Gaye classic despite containing no samples of it at all. But things are complicated in copyright! Note that the court listens to the recordings: subjective similarity is at hand, not just technology. Which perhaps explains why an extensively imitative passage with no direct sampling might be found infringing, but a short sample re-used in a novel and transformative way is not.