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Kraftwerk live at Finlandia Talo, Helsinki in February 2018Photograpghy Raph_PH via Wikimedia Commons

Kraftwerk have won a 20-year legal battle over an uncleared sample

The German electronic music pioneers’ track ‘Metall auf Metall’ was briefly sampled in Sabrina Setlur’s 1997 song ‘Nur Mir’

Two seconds, two decades: Kraftwerk have won a 20-year legal battle over the brief unauthorised sampling of their 1997 song “Metall auf Metall” or (“Metal on Metal”) in rapper Sabrina Setlur’s 1997 song “Nur Mir”.

As Billboard reports, the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of the German electronic group after members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider-Esleben began legal proceedings against hip hop producers Moses Pelham and Martin Haas in 1999. Pelham and Haas used a two-second loop of “Metall auf Metall” in their production of “Nur Mir” without permission.

Hütter and Schneider-Esleben have been seeking damages and an injunction of the song over the decades, with the case presented to multiple courts all resulting in different outcomes. This time, however, the Court of Justice concluded that original producers have the “exclusive right to authorise or prohibit reproduction in whole or in part” of their sound recordings. As such, any form of sampling, no matter how short, must be regarded as a reproduction of the original work and must be approved by the original artist. If a sample is presented “in a modified form unrecognisable to the ear” then it is not considered a reproduction.

All of which could set a somewhat problematic precedent in future court cases involving copyright infringement. Raffaella De Santis, senior associate at London law firm Harbottle & Lewis, explained to Billboard that there is no clear European definition for what sampling actually is and what could make it “unrecognisable”. “It could have a chilling effect on artistic expression in an increasingly remix culture,” she added.

When it comes to sampling, popular music has often walked a tightrope between free artistic expression and the ethics of compensating original creators. The amen break is one of the most sampled sounds of all time, and music today wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for its widespread us – at the same time, the copyright holder of the song, The Winstons frontman Richard Spencer, never saw any money from its use over the years. “The young man who played that drumbeat, Gregory Coleman, died homeless and broke in Atlanta, Georgia,” Spencer said after fans raised $24,000 for him in a goodwill fundraiser.

In other sample lawsuit news, Katy Perry recently lost a lawsuit regarding her song “Dark Horse”, with Christian rapper Flame claiming that it copied his song “Joyful Noise”. During the trial, Perry’s team described the beat of both songs as “commonplace”. Maybe the nuns won in the long run?

Listen to Kraftwerk’s “Metall auf Metall” and Sabrina Setlur’s “Nur Mir” below.