De Minimis Horn Hits Blow Away Copyright Infringement Claim

Pop star Madonna and Shep Pettibone recorded and released the mega-hit dance song Vogue in the early 1990s.  Pettibone recorded the song Love Break in the early 1980s.  VMG Salsoul LLC claims ownership of both the sound recording and musical composition copyrights for Love Break.  VMG sued Madonna, Pettibone, and others, for copyright infringement, claiming that Pettibone “sampled” (physically copied the actual sounds) of horn hits (horn chords) from Love Break in creating Vogue.

Ruling that the horn hits were not original under copyright law and, alternatively, that any horn hit sampling was de minimis, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Madonna and Pettibone.  The Ninth Circuit held that the de minimis exception to copyright infringement actions applies to all copyright infringement actions, including sound recordings.  In a previous case, Newton v. Diamond, the Ninth Circuit held that the de minimis exception applied to musical composition infringement claims, but did not decide the sound recording question, since that question was not part of that case.  The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s award of attorney’s fees to the defendants for abuse of discretion.

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