If a Sound Recording Is Copied and Nobody Hears It, Is There Copyright Infringement?

BACKGROUND

One of the exclusive rights of a sound recording copyright holder is the right to produce derivative works, or “copies that directly or indirectly recapture the actual sounds” of an original recording. 17 U.S.C. §114 (b). A copyright owner may rearrange, remix, or otherwise alter in sequence or quality “the actual sounds fixed in the sound recording” to create a derivative work. 17 U.S.C. §114 (b).  This right, however, does not prohibit “the making or duplication of another sound recording that consists entirely of an independent fixation of other sounds, even though such sounds imitate or simulate those in the copyrighted sound recording.” 17 U.S.C. §114(b).

Sampling refers to the copying of audio from an existing sound recording, potentially changing the pitch or tempo of the original recording and incorporating the clip into a new recording. In a copyright infringement suit, the de minimis exception applies when the alleged copying is so minimal that it is not actionable copying. See Ringgold v. Black Entm’t Television Inc. (2d Cir. 1997). A copied product exceeds the de minimis threshold when the copy is substantially similar to the original. However, the Sixth and Ninth circuits have split as to whether the de minimis exception applies when copyrighted sound recordings are sampled.

THE ISSUE

Does 17 U.S.C. §114(b) expand the exclusive rights of sound recording copyright holders such that the de minimis exception does not apply?

THE SPLIT

The Sixth Circuit has held the de minimis exception inapplicable for claims alleging sound recording infringement and has adopted a bright-line rule that any sampling of a sound recording violates the exclusive rights of a copyright holder. The Ninth Circuit has held the exact opposite, applying the de minimis exception to sound recording sampling infringement actions.

In Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, the Sixth Circuit held that the de minimis inquiry did not apply when the defendant admitted to sampling, and therefore copying, a sound recording. The court argued that sampling violated a copyright owner’s exclusive right to create derivative works. The court concluded that a sample was a derivative work because of the statutory language in §114(b) describing derivative works as sounds from an original recording that “are rearranged, remixed, or otherwise altered.” Further supporting its holding, the Sixth Circuit interpreted the inclusion of the term “entirely” in §114(b) as signifying that a sound recording owner has the exclusive right to sample his own recording no matter the amount sampled. The court justified its elimination of the de minimisexception and adoption of this bright-line rule for three reasons. First, the court highlighted the “ease of enforcement” in requiring artists either “[g]et a license or do not sample.” The court did not view this bright-line rule as stifling creativity because an artist can imitate or duplicate a sound without sampling and infringing on the original. Second, the court maintained that the “market will control the license price” such that it will not become unreasonable. Third, the court argued that “sampling is never accidental.” The Sixth Circuit reasoned that because sampling “is a physical taking rather than an intellectual one,” the de minimis exception does not apply. 

In VMG Salsoul, LLC v. Ciccone, the Ninth Circuit expressly disagreed with its sister circuit’s decision, holding that sampling 0.23 seconds of audio did not exceed the de minimis threshold and therefore did not infringe on the original copyrighted sound recording. The court evaluated whether “an average audience would recognize the appropriation” to determine if the sampled audio exceeded the de minimis standard. Emphasizing that the plaintiff’s own expert witness could not discern which notes of the original sound recording were sampled, the court concluded that an “average audience would not do a better job,” and therefore, there was no infringement.

The plaintiff in VMG Salsoul urged the court to apply Bridgeport’s bright-line rule that for “copyrighted sound recordings, any unauthorized copying—no matter how trivial—constitutes infringement,” but the Ninth Circuit refused to do so. The court cited legal precedent showing that the “rule that infringement occurs only when a substantial portion is copied is firmly established in the law.” Then, the court turned to the statutory text. The court noted that 17 U.S.C. §102, which lists copyrightable works of authorship, “treats sound recordings identically to all other types of protected works” and nothing in the text indicates that sound recording should be treated differently than any other work. The court found nothing in the statutory text to suggest that “Congress intended to eliminate the de minimis exception” for sound recordings. The court then addressed 17 U.S.C. §114(b), which was central to the Sixth Circuit’s holding. Focusing on the sentence containing “entirely” just as the Sixth Circuit had, the court described the sentence as “imposing an express limitation on the rights of a copyright holder” and hesitated to “read an implicit expansion of rights into Congress’s statement of an express limitation on rights.” The court interpreted this provision as only dictating that a “new recording that mimics the copyrighted recording is not an infringement . . . so long as there was no actual copying” without eliminating the longstanding de minimis exception for sound recordings.

The court went so far as to call the Sixth Circuit’s decision illogical and emphasized that a “statement that rights do not extend to a particular circumstance does not automatically mean that rights extend in all other circumstances.” Further, the court explicitly rejected Bridgeport for three reasons. First, the court did not find the “physical taking” component of sampling as suitable justification for eliminating the de minimis exception. The court reasoned that physical taking “exists with respect to other kinds of artistic works as well, such as photographs,” and the de minimis rule still applies to those works. Second, the court acknowledged that even if sound recordings could be treated differently than other works according to the statute, “that theoretical difference does not mean that Congress actuallyadopted a different rule.” The court hesitated to eliminate the de minimis exception without Congress’s explicit intention to do so. Lastly, the court highlighted the contradiction between the Sixth Circuit’s argument that its decision would be beneficial for musicians by saving costs and the Supreme Court’s express assertion in Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co. that the Copyright Act does not protect the “sweat of the brow” or the fruit of an author’s labor.

LOOKING FORWARD

In the digital age, this issue cannot be left unresolved. Artists will continue to sample sound recordings as sampling is popular within the music industry, but this ambiguity makes it difficult to anticipate whether sampling invariably requires a license or whether a license requirement can be determined on a case-by-case basis. Because the deadline to submit a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court has passed for both cases, this circuit split will remain unresolved for the foreseeable future.

Losing Your Second for a Lifetime: Does Prior Involuntary Institutionalization Trigger a Lifelong Ban on Firearm Possession?

BACKGROUND

Federal law prohibits the possession of firearms by persons who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health institution by a state court. This ban, part of the “Gun Control Act” and codified at 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), also applies to people who have been convicted of a felony, convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, or have been dishonorably discharged from the United States Armed Forces, among others. However, federal law does not dictate for how long one may be banned from possessing a firearm—is it weeks? Months? Years? Decades?

Duy Mai was seventeen years old in 1999, when he was involuntarily committed to a mental health institution by a Washington court. His commitment spanned more than nine months to account for the court’s ruling that Mai was “mentally ill and dangerous.” Since his release in 2000, Mai has earned a GED, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree. He is a father and asserts that he is “socially-responsible, well-balanced, and accomplished.” And, he argues, he no longer has a mental illness. Now he wants to buy a gun. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals says he may not.

THE ISSUE

Does 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) impose a lifetime ban on firearm possession after involuntary institutionalization?

THE SPLIT

The Ninth and Third Circuits have held that, yes, involuntary institutionalization does trigger a lifelong ban on firearm possession. The Sixth Circuit has held that it does not.

In Mai v. United States (2020), the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Duy Mai’s claim. There, he argued that a lifelong imposition of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) violated his Second Amendment rights. Some states have been able to grant their citizens relief from this ban through inquiries allowed under 34 U.S.C. § 40915 (“Authority to Provide Relief from Certain Disabilities with Respect to Firearms”),  but Washington’s program did not meet the robust requirements to make Mai eligible for such relief. Assuming arguendo that the lifetime ban burdened Mai’s Second Amendment right to bear arms, the Ninth Circuit applied intermediate scrutiny to his claim. The judges balanced the statutory objectives and any important governmental purpose of § 922(g)(4) with the substantial limitations it places on Mai’s freedoms. Citing to prior United States Supreme Court precedent, the judges concluded that the government’s important responsibilities to prevent suicide and crime outweighed any as-applied limitation on Mai’s right to possess a firearm. After all, the Court noted, this right is not unlimited. The Ninth Circuit also cited to its own prior ruling on 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9) from United States v. Chovan, where the court determined that a lifetime ban on gun ownership was appropriate for someone who had been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor “regardless of present-day rectitude.”

The Sixth Circuit used the same general framework as the Ninth Circuit but came to a different conclusion. Like Mai, the plaintiff in Tyler v. Hillsdale County Sheriff’s Department (2016), argued that a lifetime ban on firearm ownership violated his Second Amendment right since he no longer suffered from mental illness. Tyler had been involuntarily committed more than thirty years ago following a particularly emotional divorce. Also like Mai, Tyler conceded that the ban may be appropriate where a person continues to suffer, which was not true in his case. The Court applied intermediate scrutiny for the same reasons as cited in Mai—assuming, arguendo, that the Second Amendment right is burdened, the decision to lifetime ban must be substantially related to the stated government justifications. Unlike Mai, however, the Sixth Circuit did not consider a lifetime ban fit for the justifications. The government failed to show that there was a substantial relationship between the two primary justifications (suicide prevention and crime reduction) and the ban, according to the Court. As such, the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded for further application of as-applied intermediate scrutiny.

Like the Ninth Circuit, the Third Circuit also found that § 922(g)(4)’s lifetime ban passed muster. The plaintiff in Beers v. Attorney General of the United States (2020) was involuntarily committed to a mental health institution in Pennsylvania in 2005. He had expressed suicidal ideations to his parents and had also used a firearm to demonstrate these ideations. His mother noted that she feared his access to a firearm gave him the means to complete any plans to end his life. The state twice renewed Beers’s commitment before his final release in 2006. Not long after discharge, Beers attempted to purchase a firearm. His application was denied once a background check revealed his prior involuntary commitment.  Beers challenged this denial in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, but that court dismissed the matter for failure to state a claim. Upon appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed the denial.

In a departure from the approaches taken by the Ninth and Sixth Circuits, the Third Circuit concluded that Beers’s Second Amendment rights were not substantially burdened, and therefore, the court did not apply intermediate scrutiny. The Third Circuit applied the framework it had established in Binderup v. Attorney General of the United States (2016), which requires a challenger to the federal firearm ban to “(1) identify the traditional justifications for excluding from Second Amendment protections the class of which he appears to be a member, and then (2) present facts about himself and his background that distinguish his circumstances from those of persons in the historically barred class.” Only if a litigant can demonstrate both elements will their rights be considered burdened, triggering intermediate scrutiny. In addition to outlining historical notions of mental illness in society, the Third Circuit also looked to pre-Second Amendment literature cited in Binderup. There, the court referenced The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority of the Convention, of the State of Pennsylvania, to Their Constituents (1787). The Address notes that a citizen would be ineligible to bear arms if they were a “real danger of public injury.” The court interpreted this to extend to someone who creates a real danger to the self as well. In returning to Binderup’s logic, the Third Circuit concluded that Beers could not establish how he could distinguish himself from this class (mentally ill individuals). Binderuprecognized neither the passage of time nor evidence of rehabilitation as distinctions from the class of excluded individuals. With no other bases for distinction, the court concluded Beers’s right was not burdened. Beers filed a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, who granted certiorari, but remanded the case with instructions to dismiss as moot.

LOOKING FORWARD

            In 2019, nearly forty-thousand people were killed and thirty-thousand were injured by incidents involving a firearm. With the United States grappling with its relationship with guns and the Second Amendment, understanding the limits (or lack thereof) of Second Amendment rights is critical. This extends beyond the conversation here—who can have guns, when they may use them, and where they may be stored or taken is inherently a part of the national conversation on violence in this country. The issue, and many others, needs to be addressed at the highest level. Whether involuntary commitment to a mental health institution triggers a lifelong ban on firearm ownership is ripe for Supreme Court review—does such a record make you lose your Second [Amendment] for a lifetime?