Hip-hop would not be where it is today but for the pivotal roles played by Bronx-based hip-hop legends Afrika Bambaata and Soulsonic Force.They put themselves on the map in the 1980s by releasing iconic tracks such as “Planet Rock,” “Looking for the Beat,” and “Renegade Funk” with record label Rhino Entertainment. Even today, big names such as Krafterwek and Lana Del Rey sample their tracks to create chart-topping hits. Unfortunately, according to a lawsuit filed by Bambaata and Soulsonic against Rhino Entertainment and Artists Rights Enforcement Corp (AREC), neither group has seen royalty compensation for their Rhino Entertainment releases in 27 years. The plaintiffs seek to exercise their right to termination under the 1976 Copyright Act, which allows authors to take back the rights to their work 35 years after initial publishing. The plaintiffs allege that in 2002 they entered an agreement with AREC to collect unpaid royalties from Rhino, and in 2009 the plaintiffs entered into a settlement agreement with Rhino. However, according to the complaint, AREC failed to use “best efforts” to collect royalties and the plaintiffs were not compensated for 25 tracks that embodied their production and vocal work. Plaintiffs further allege that, ever since they terminated their agreement with AREC in 2013, the organization has intentionally withheld royalty payments due to Bambaata and Soulsonic. Plaintiffs seek damages for breach of contract, as well as a declaratory judgment confirming them as owners of the copyrights to three of their tracks. As the hip-hop industry increasingly brings its battles from the streets to the courtroom, this case presents a window into new legal challenges confronting a genre historically reliant on derivative works.
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Jennifer Marr is an Entertainment and Sports Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current first year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2018).