Drake and others successfully defeated a claim for copyright infringement for sampling a jazz musician’s composition in the hit song “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2” (“Pound Cake”).
In February 2020, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit released its summary order dismissing the appeal of the Estate of James Oscar Smith and Hebrew Hustle Inc. The Second Circuit upheld the lower court’s 2017 finding that Pound Cake’s sampling of “Jimmy Smith Rap” (“JSR”) constituted “fair use” (the American equivalent of Canada’s “fair dealing”). Though there are nuanced differences between fair dealing and fair use, at their core, both concepts enable users to use copyrighted expression without the owner’s permission without being found liable for copyright infringement.
The litigation procedure used by the American court in this case informs available procedures that Canadian courts can adopt when dealing with claims for copyright infringement. If a case ultimately turns on whether the defendant’s use of copyrightable expression constitutes fair dealing, parties should be able to use summary proceedings to determine these issues, like Drake did.
Jimmy Smith was not a fan of Hip Hop
The late James Oscar Smith (aka Jimmy Smith) was a popular American Jazz musician. In 1982, he recorded the album Off the Top. The first six tracks are instrumental. The last track is JSR, a spoken word recording. In JSR, Jimmy Smith raps:
Jazz is the only real music that’s gonna last. All that other bullshit is here today and gone tomorrow. But jazz was, is and always will be.
In 2013, Cash Money Records and Universal Republic Records released Drake’s album Nothing Was the Same. Like JSR, the track named Pound Cake (featuring Jay Z) is the last song in the album. The opening to Pound Cake samples approximately 35 seconds of JSR. Jimmy Smith’s estate would not have granted a license for the composition because Jimmy Smith “wasn’t a fan of hip hop”. His estate sued for copyright infringement.
Summary judgment available
The parties brought cross motions for summary judgment. The court dismissed the plaintiff estate’s action. The court held that the transformative nature of Pound Cake brought it within the spectrum of fair use, which is an affirmative defence to copyright infringement. The court made this finding despite findings that it could not determine whether (i) the plaintiffs’ retained copyright in JSR or (ii) Pound Cake’s sampling copied the constituent original elements of JSR. Both issues would have been left for the jury if the court could not make an affirmative finding of fair use in the motion.
The court accepted the defendants’ argument that Pound Cake fundamentally altered the message of the original work. Drake edited the JFR recording from “Jazz is the only real music that’s gonna last” to “only real music is gonna last”. In doing this, the court found that Drake transformed Jimmy Smith’s dismissive comment about other trendy music into a statement on the relevance and staying power of “real music”, regardless of genre.
Although the lower court cautioned that courts are typically wary about granting summary judgment in copyright matters, they will do so when there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute. This was one such case in respect of the fair dealing analysis. The court noted that summary judgment in fair use cases may be appropriate where there is only a slight chance that additional, non-cumulative evidence will be presented at trial.
Applying Drake’s litigation tactic in the north
If the Pound Cake dispute had not been resolved at summary judgment, the parties would have spent significant resources trying to prove whether copyright subsists in a 40-year-old composition and whether the defendants engaged in any substantial taking. In this case, there was a dispute over copyright ownership in JSR. The main witness on ownership in the work, Jimmy Smith, was deceased. Because the case turned on whether Drake’s sampling of JSR constituted fair use, the court was able to adjudicate the dispute without making factual findings on Mr. Smith’s recording of JSR in the 80’s (or hearing lengthy evidence on this issue).
In Canada, courts are instructed to use procedures that provide for the just, most expeditious and least expensive determination of civil proceeding on the merits. Like fair use in the United Sates, if a Canadian court finds that the defendant’s use of the plaintiff’s copyrighted work constitutes fair dealing, the defendant will not be held liable for copyright infringement. If the court must undertake a fulsome trial of all issues, despite the case turning on the fair dealing analysis, all parties will have needlessly spent a tremendous amount of resources on issues that do not resolve the key fair dealing issue. In a copyright infringement lawsuit, parties can spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on discovery, production disputes, and damages quantification.
The Federal Court of Canada has a robust case management regime, which allows parties to agree to have the court adjudicate some or all of the issues in dispute. Summary judgment and summary trials in the Federal Court are designed to promote affordable, timely and just adjudication of civil claims. The Federal Court is the preferred (though not exclusive) jurisdiction to resolve copyright disputes because its jurisdiction covers the entire country, not just one province.
When cases turn on a single issue that is not
fact-driven, parties can and should submit that issue for summary adjudication.
If the allegedly infringing work constitutes fair dealing, there is no need to
quantify damages, assess whether there is a substantial taking, or verify the
chain of title in the copyright. This can save parties years of headache,
uncertainty, and substantial legal bills.
 For example, fair dealing has a “closed” list of enumerated purposes unlike fair use; fair dealing has open-ended set of 6 “fairness” factors which may or may not be used in every analysis, and fair use has statutorily-prescribed set of 4 factors; and fair use analysis has been informed by First Amendment/free speech considerations, and fair dealing has not engaged in this analysis at length.