Publish date:
Updated on

A federal court puts its stamp on hip-hop

Gilbert O'Sullivan, an Irishman who favored bowl haircuts, suspenders and pants that ended at the knee is mainly remembered as the "one-hit wonder" behind the melancholy early 1970s hit "Alone Again, Naturally." But on December 17, 1991, he earned a larger place in music history when the United States Federal Court for the Southern District of New York ruled in Sullivan's favor as plaintiff in the Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros, the landmark copyright-infringement case that established the guiding legal principles governing music "sampling."

A pop star who seemed to have borrowed his look from the Little Rascals, his sound from Paul McCartney and his stage name from the authors of The Mikado might seem an unlikely champion of artistic originality. Yet by arguing for his right to control and profit from the use of his 1971 recording as the musical underpinning of rapper Biz Markie's 1991 song "Alone Again," Gilbert O'Sullivan ended up securing those same rights for such true pioneers as James Brown and George Clinton, whose music was and still is of foundational importance to the development of hip hop.

Like the performer himself, Biz Markie's "Alone Again," was warm-hearted, self-deprecating and extremely likeable. But that was never at issue in the lawsuit Gilbert O'Sullivan filed through Grand Upright Music, Ltd. against Markie, Markie's production company and Markie's record label. At issue was whether Markie was required to seek permission to sample a portion of "Alone Again (Naturally)" in his own, otherwise original recording. The core of his and Warner Bros. Records' defense was that unlicensed sampling was common and standard in the hip-hop industry, but Federal Judge Kevin Duffy rejected that argument, noting that "the defendants…would have this court believe that stealing is rampant in the music business and, for that reason, their conduct here should be excused."

In fact, unlicensed sampling was common and standard in the hip-hop industry up until the decision rendered on this day in 1991. In the wake of Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros., hip-hop artists or others wishing to use samples of copyrighted recordings in their own works had to begin securing permission before the fact, often paying a great deal of money for the right to do so.

Re-issues of Biz Markie's album I Need a Haircut no longer include "Alone Again" in their track listings. His follow-up album, All Samples Cleared (1993) was true to its title, however, and is still available in its entirety.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!


“Squeaky” Fromme sentenced to life

A federal jury in Sacramento, California, sentences Lynette Alice Fromme, also known as “Squeaky” Fromme, to life in prison for her attempted assassination of President Gerald R. Ford. On September 5, a Secret Service agent wrested a semi-automatic .45-caliber pistol from Fromme, more

First airplane flies

Near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright make the first successful flight in history of a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft. Orville piloted the gasoline-powered, propeller-driven biplane, which stayed aloft for 12 seconds and covered 120 feet on its more

Ford Madox Ford is born

Ford Madox Ford, a writer, editor, and member of the so-called Lost Generation who served on the Western Front during the Great War, is born Ford Hermann Hueffer on this day in 1873. Hueffer (he would change his name to Ford Madox Ford in 1919) had already published his first more

Cambodian forces under heavy pressure

Cambodian government positions in Prak Ham, 40 miles north of Phnom Penh, and the 4,000-man base at Taing Kauk are the targets of continuous heavy bombardment by communist forces. The communist Khmer Rouge and their North Vietnamese allies were trying to encircle the capital more

Terrell Owens makes record-breaking 20 catches

On December 17, 2000, during a 17-0 victory by the San Francisco 49ers over the Chicago Bears, San Francisco’s wide receiver Terrell Owens sets a new league record of 20 catches in a single game. Drafted by the 49ers in the third round of the 1996 NFL draft, Owens was thrilled to more

Circus catches fire in Brazil

On this day in 1961, a fire at a circus in Brazil kills more than 300 people and severely burns hundreds more. The cause of the fire was never conclusively determined but it may have been the result of sparks from a train passing nearby. Christmas week was just beginning, the more

“Operation Iceman” nabs the culprit

Richard Kuklinski, a suspect in several murders, is arrested by undercover agents at a truck stop off the New Jersey Turnpike, marking the culmination of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ “Operation Iceman.” Kuklinski had sealed his fate when he showed operative more

Grant expels the Jews from his department

On this day in 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant lashes out at at Jewish cotton speculators, who he believed were the driving force behind the black market for cotton, and issues an order expellingall Jewish people from his military district, which encompassed parts of more