Notorious B.I.G Estate Evades Copyright Lawsuit

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The estate of Christopher Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls, reigned supreme last week in the Southern District of New York after U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan dismissed a copyright suit against him. The late rapper, along with Rita Ora and Jermaine Jackson, among other songwriters and producers, were sued over lyrics used in two songs, “Party and Bullshit,” Biggie’s 1993 hit and, “How We Do (Party),” Rita Ora’s 2012 single. The lawsuit, originally filed in March 2016, was brought by Abiodun Oyewole, a founding member of a group called The Last Poets, who alleged that defendants copied the phrase “party and bullshit” from a 1968 spoken-word poem, “When the Revolution Comes.”  The poem warns about a coming revolution when “guns and rifles will be taking the place of poems and essays” and “has a back track that consists of a drum beat and chants” according to Judge Nathan’s decision.

Oyewole, who contends he owns the copyright for the poem “When the Revolution Comes,” sought $24 million in damages, but Judge Nathan dismissed the complaint in a decision signed March 7 and entered in court March 9, coincidently the anniversary of the rapper’s death. She held that the works are “transformative” because the two songs “transform the purpose of the phrase “party and bullshit” from one of condemnation to one of glorification” and are therefore protected by the doctrine of fair use. She explains that while “When the Revolution Comes” is a political song that warns of an approaching violent revolution, in contrast, Wallace and Ora’s songs “embrace the ‘party and bullshit’ culture.” Moreover, Judge Nathan noted that Oyewole himself acknowledged in his complaint that defendants’ uses of the phrase were transformative, stating: “The Last Poets’ ‘When the Revolution Comes’ advises its listeners not to give in to the siren song of lackadaisical living so as to be ready for change, whereas both songs at issue in the case extol the virtues of letting go.” Thus, even Oyewole recognizes that defendants’ songs change the meaning and purpose of the phrase “party and bullshit.”

According to Law360, Oyewole filed suit after he heard Ora’s song in 2016, claiming that he had held off suing Biggie Smalls’ widow and mother over the alleged infringing use of “party and bullshit,” but that the phrase was now being “polluted by the new uses that were glorifying, instead of cautioning against, a less serious approach to life.”

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