December 17, 1991 – A federal court puts its stamp on hip-hop

December 17, 1991 – A federal court puts its stamp on hip-hop

Gilbert O’Sullivan, an Irishman who favored bowl haircuts, suspenders and pants that ended at the knee is mainly remembered as the “one-hit wonder” behind the melancholy early 1970s hit “Alone Again, Naturally.” But on December 17, 1991, he earned a larger place in music history when the United States Federal Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in Sullivan’s favor as plaintiff in the Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros, the landmark copyright-infringement case that established the guiding legal principles governing music “sampling.”

A pop star who seemed to have borrowed his look from the Little Rascals, his sound from Paul McCartney and his stage name from the authors of The Mikado might seem an unlikely champion of artistic originality. Yet by arguing for his right to control and profit from the use of his 1971 recording as the musical underpinning of rapper Biz Markie’s 1991 song “Alone Again,” Gilbert O’Sullivan ended up securing those same rights for such true pioneers as James Brown and George Clinton, whose music was and still is of foundational importance to the development of hip hop.

Like the performer himself, Biz Markie’s “Alone Again,” was warm-hearted, self-deprecating and extremely likeable. But that was never at issue in the lawsuit Gilbert O’Sullivan filed through Grand Upright Music, Ltd. against Markie, Markie’s production company and Markie’s record label. At issue was whether Markie was required to seek permission to sample a portion of “Alone Again (Naturally)” in his own, otherwise original recording.

The core of his and Warner Bros. Records’ defense was that unlicensed sampling was common and standard in the hip-hop industry, but Federal Judge Kevin Duffy rejected that argument, noting that “the defendants… would have this court believe that stealing is rampant in the music business and, for that reason, their conduct here should be excused.” In fact, unlicensed sampling was common and standard in the hip-hop industry up until the decision rendered on this day in 1991.

In the wake of Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros., hip-hop artists or others wishing to use samples of copyrighted recordings in their own works had to begin securing permission before the fact, often paying a great deal of money for the right to do so. Re-issues of Biz Markie’s album I Need a Haircut no longer include “Alone Again” in their track listings. His follow-up album, All Samples Cleared (1993) was true to its title, however, and is still available in its entirety.