Universal Music Group loves the idea of suing music fans for the full freight when it comes to copyright infringement, celebrating their ability to extract $150,000 per act of infringement with punitive damages on top -- but now that Universal's been slapped with one of these copyright suits (for sampling Hendrix without permission, something I think they should be able to do, FWIW), they've decided that these damages are "unconstitutionally excessive."
The case in question involves now-deceased rapper The Notorious B.I.G., whose album Ready to Die incorporated an unlicensed sample of "Singing in the Morning" from the Ohio Players after a Hendrix sample was denied clearance. The sample made its way onto the final album and even onto reissued albums. Bridgeport Music and Westbound Records, which control the rights to the song, sued. A district court ruled in their favor; Bridgeport took the $150,000 maximum in statutory damages, while Westbound sought compensatory and punitive damages. Westbound scored big, earning $366,939 from the jury along with punitive damages of a whopping $3.5 million.
In appealing the ruling, Universal argued that the punitive damages award was "grossly excessive and should be vacated or at least reduced." The reason? It's excessive. The brief quotes a Supreme Court ruling that said, "In practice, few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, to a significant degree, will satisfy due process." Universal pointed out that the award in question was "approximately 10 to 1, far above the line of unconstitutional impropriety."
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