Mashup, a style of music that combines samples from various songs, would appear to many to be the epitome of copyright infringement. In fact, a 2005 court case, Bridgeport v. Dimension, deemed the unauthorized use of even one second of a sample to be copyright infringement. Since mashup blends several samples over the course of any one song, it must certainly be copyright infringement. Right? Not so fast.
Judges do make mistakes, and no court decision is set in stone, so it is worth considering whether a legitimate legal defense could be made on behalf of the mashup artist. In establishing such a hypothetical defense, let’s turn to the fair use doctrine, which permits the unauthorized use of copyrighted materials under certain circumstances.
Fair use is a legal doctrine meant to protect works deemed valuable for society, often shielding works involving first amendment expression, such as parodies. When reviewing a fair use defense, courts consider such things as how “transformative” the work is, the substantiality of the portion used, and the effect on the market for the original work. With this in mind, could a fair use defense be made on behalf of the mashup artist?
I will now show one reason why mashup could be considered fair use. While this particular argument will certainly not apply to all mashup music, I think that it at least demonstrates that Bridgeport’s blanket prohibition of sampling does not leave space for the sort of legitimate behavior that the fair use doctrine was meant to protect.
For this hypothetical fair use defense, let’s delve into the transformative nature of mashup music. To start, mashup artists frequently splice up samples while editing the pitch, tempo, and the mix of the original work. At the end of the day, however, samples are usually meant to be recognizable. As a result, the extent of these edits is typically held within limits.
Nonetheless, mashup can be incredibly transformative for another important reason. By pairing up samples from different songs, mashup can provide an entirely new context for the original works. In this way, mashup artists can provide critical commentary on those works, expressing their own perspectives on the songs being utilized. This can spur valuable conversations that construct new perspectives, a similar process to that triggered by an SNL parody, for example. As a result, mashup can yield the sort of first amendment expression that the fair use doctrine was meant to protect.
To see this argument in action, consider the mashup artist, Milkman’s song “All About It,” which samples the vocal track from Pitbull’s “Go Girl” (listen below; the Pitbull vocal track starts about fifteen seconds in to Milkman’s song). Pitbull originally blended his vocal track with an instrumental that had a dirty feel through its use of a base drum and a repeating flute line. Milkman, however, eliminated this “dirty” sound entirely by pairing up Pitbull’s vocal track with a 90s pop song, Real McCoy’s “Another Night.” The pop context that Milkman provides the Pitbull vocal track reveals how silly Pitbull’s lyrics really are. In this way, Milkman’s sampling of Pitbull’s song acts as a sort of critical commentary on that work, and therefore could be considered worthy of the type of first amendment protection that the fair use doctrine was intended to offer.
Do mashups always provide critical commentary on the samples they use? Probably not. Nonetheless, the Milkman example does seem to show that a mashup could be worthy of fair use protection under certain circumstances. As a result, the Bridgeport decision, which deems all sampling to be copyright infringement regardless of the particular use, seems to be going too far.