Universal Music: when we get hit with copyright damages, that's "unconstitutionally excessive"

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."



  1. Well of course they think that way. These people never think the rules apply to them, rules are for little people.

  2. there was probably some lawyer working for universal who was like “hey… hey guys. let’s try and plead that the charges filed against us are ‘unconstitutionally excessive’ and see if we can get away with it!”


  3. if they were smart, they’d pay it and issue a press release stating that they accept full responsibility for their actions and accept the jury’s fair decision and are very sorry. they can then sue the pants off of you and me with a clear conscience, haven taken the high road.

    right. that’ll happen.

  4. So if they can get away with pleading excessiveness, does that set a precedent for Jammie Thomas to use in her appeal?

  5. But if I get fined thousands for EACH SONG I download, why doesn’t the record company get fined for EACH COPY they pirated?

  6. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
    These are the Rules Universal wanted. Now they don’t like ’em.
    The easiest way to make a Liberal out of a Conservative is to place them under Arrest.
    “Liberal” = “lover of Liberty”.
    Why do Americans now hate Liberty? Does the Liberty of people interfere with the plans or hopes of the Powerful?
    Is that it?

  7. It’s a very strange case, and we should all hope that Universal wins. Why complain about hypocrisy on the one occasion when they clean up their act and do right? Sure they have selfish motives, but that precedent can be used to help small-fry defendants in the future.

    What makes the case exceedingly strange is that normally punitive damages aren’t allowed at all in copyright lawsuits. In almost every court, the choice is actual damages or the up-to-$150,000 statutory damages. Punitives aren’t in the list, and almost all courts have held that plaintiffs can’t ever get them. The idea was that statutory damages would take their place. If you think about it, it makes a twisted kind of sense: statutory damages are almost every bit as harsh, so they can certainly play the same kind of role. It’s baffling why Universal didn’t even try to make this argument.

  8. Well, what I want to know is, does Universal/the RIAA generally seek punitive damages in a 10:1 ratio between punitive and compensatory damages? Because they don’t seem to be arguing that the compensatory damages are excessive, nor are they arguing that the $150k statutory damages are excessive, they’re arguing that the punitive damages, at 10:1, are an excessive ratio. They seem to be arguing that if it were 5:1, for example, or 2:1, they wouldn’t have a problem with it. Which doesn’t really smack of hypocrisy to me all that much. If they were arguing about the statutory or compensatory damages, then it might be a bit more blatant.

    And #5: they only used one song without permission. Yes, they reproduced it a great many times, but it was only one song. So if you only downloaded one song, you’d only get hit with one (still very large) fine.

  9. Aw that’s nothing. Universal only has to sue 26 teenagers for copyright infringement to break even.

  10. Actually, the sample they were sued for was taken from an Ohio Players track after they were turned down for use of the Hendrix sample. I guess they figured that they were less likely to get sued if they used an unapproved sample they hadn’t asked about first . . . oops.

  11. Yes, shouldn’t their penalty be $150,000 for each copy of the record that has the sample? Say, one million copies, so $150 bn? Sounds about right.
    I can’t wait for all the record companies to go out of business. They have nothing to offer anyone.

  12. This will come back to bite them in the arse. Let’s hope the bite leaves permanent scars.

  13. Delicious irony– I know that if the shoe were on the other foot, Universal would sue the pants off whoever used a sample of something THEY owned.

    One of my favorite albums of all time is DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing…” from 1995. It consists 100% of samples, and only a handful of the hundreds of samples he used were credited and authorized and paid for. The amount of money needed to authorize all those samples would mean that the album would never get released (legitimately, anyway: I’m sure bootlegs would eventually appear). SO, do we stifle a legitimate musical creation simply because everybody wants a big piece of the pie, or because they refuse to grant permission? Or do we set reasonable rules and rates on how a sample may be used?

  14. The argument is over punitive damages, so if they win it will have no effect over the $150,000 per act of infringement statutory damages unauthorised sampling is saddled with. If the quotation from the Supreme court is anything to go by, a deduction of $200,000 [or one ninth the statutory damages] from the claim of $3.5m ought to satisfy due process. So when you’re confronted with a $3.5m bill for sampling music on the album you produced on your laptop, remember that Universal set a precedent which means you’re only required to pay $3.3m

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