If you’ve seen “The Fighter,” you’re likely familiar with the inspiring story of boxer Mickey Ward and great acting performances, particularly from Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. Here’s something you don’t know. The super-catchy, definitely-funky guitar-and-horns riff that serves as the basis for the song, “How You Like Me Now?” played throughout the movie, might be on its way towards being the most litigated few notes of music…ever.
Introducing the sordid legal history of a couple bars of music…
Before The Fighter featured the song “How You Like Me Now?” by the UK indie rock band The Heavy, the song served as the soundtrack to a commercial for Kia Motors that was run during last year’s Super Bowl. Here was the spot:
Drive-in Music Company, a small music publisher based in LA, heard the music and thought it sounded familiar.
In 1969, the funk band, Dyke & the Blazers, had its biggest hit, “Let a Woman Be a Woman And A Man Be A Man.” The song was written by the band’s front-man Arlester Christian. He assigned rights to the song to Drive-in Music Company. Two years later, Christian passed away.
For forty years, Drive-in Music has enjoyed copyright title to the song, but hasn’t taken much action. Until very recently.
Soon after the commercial ran, Drive-in Music sued Kia, CBS, the NFL, ad agency David & Goliath, Ninja Tune Records and various other parties for copyright theft.
You be the judge whether the above song sounds familiar to Christian’s composition:
Three months after the lawsuit was filed, the parties came to a settlement. Terms weren’t disclosed, but we’re guessing that the publishers of “How You Like Me Now?” agreed to fork over some royalties and give proper credit. The soundtrack for The Fighter lists the song and one of its co-authors as Arlester Christian.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Since the settlement was made, Drive-in Music seems to be emboldened to go after anybody in music history that has somehow sampled or recreated the old Dyke and the Blazer tune. The company has sued dozens of parties including:
— In July, Drive-in Music sued Sony BMG, Ruthless Records, and others for use of “Let a Woman Be a Woman” in the seminal gangster rap hit, “Menace to Society” by the group, Above the Law
— In August, Drive-in Music sued Capitol Records for use of “Let a Woman Be a Woman” in the 1990 rap song, “Diss You” from rapper, King Tee
— In September, Drive-in Music sued Busta Rhymes, Warner Music, Elektra Entertainment, Atlantic Recording Company and others for use of “Let a Woman Be a Woman” in 1991 old-school hip hop song, “Case of the P.T.A.”
— In September, Drive-in Music sued Universal Music Group, Interscope-Geffen-A&M Group, and Beck Hansen for use of “Let a Woman Be a Woman” in the 1997 Beck song “Jack-Ass” from the Odelay album
In fact, just this week, Drive-in Music has filed a second lawsuit over that very same Beck song. The company is going after the publisher, Cyandide Breathmint Music, the Dust Brothers, and various subsidiaries of UMG.
Part of what’s amazing about all of these lawsuits is not only a plaintiff going after sampling, a music technique that’s technically illegal from a copyright standpoint (depending on the nature of the use) and also something that is rarely pursed. But also, the plaintiff is reaching back 10 and 20 years to pursue alleged copyright infringement we bet most people have forgotten about. If other plaintiffs start suing over sampling, without any time limit, imagine the number of potential lawsuits.
We’re not talking about straight lifts either. Here’s Beck’s “Jack-Ass.” See if it sounds any similar to the tunes in the clips above, including the one you may have heard in a recent Oscar contender.