“Dope!”, IP Rights, and the Beastie Boys

Earlier this year, the hip-hop group Beastie Boys won a jury verdict against Monster Energy Company for a staggering $1.7 million. On top of that, they managed to score a cool $668,000 in attorneys’ fees. So what lead to one of the most venerable groups in the ’80s rap game to take on an energy drink manufacturer in the first place? According to a federal district court in New York, the Red Bull competitor ran a promotional video on its website that illegally used the Beastie Boys’ music without their permission, thereby infringing on its copyrights.

In early 2011, the Beastie Boys entered into an agreement with DJ Zach Sciacca, also known as “Z-Trip,” to create a remix of some of the group’s songs in order to promote their upcoming album. Under the terms of the agreement, Z-Trip could release the remix for free as a promotional item, but he was not given any rights to sell or license the remix or the underlying songs.

After member Adam Yauch (known as “MCA”) passed away in 2012, Z-Trip performed the remix at a Monster event which was recorded on video. Monster’s regional marketing director, Nelson Phillips, decided to use excerpts from Z-Trip’s remix in the video without asking the Beastie Boys or their management.

This is a multi-million dollar company, so why wouldn’t they ask (or, heaven forbid, pay) for the rights to use the music? According to Phillips, he did have permission—from Z-Trip. Phillips had emailed Z-Trip a link to the video for his “approval,” to which he received the response “Dope!” Based on his testimony, Phillips took this to mean “Yes, you can use all aspects of the recording, including the Beastie Boys’ music,” while Z-Trip interpreted it very differently.

(I feel like there aren’t enough lawsuits where the case turns on the word “dope” and what its legal effect is, but that might just be me…)

If the jury believed Phillips, it would substantially limit any possible verdict and damages, since the heart of the copyright infringement claim stated that Monster willfully or recklessly violated the Boys’ intellectual property rights in the music. Under federal law, a single willful or reckless infringement authorizes damages up to $150,000, while both an innocent or a “regular” infringement authorize up to $30,000 per use.

The jury, in rendering its verdict, found that Monster recklessly disregarded the possibility that its use would infringe on the Beastie Boys’ copyrights, awarding the copyright holders $1.2 million in damages—five song recording and five musical composition copyright violations at $120,000 each. Add to this another $500,000 in damages for intentionally deceiving consumers that the Beastie Boys endorsed Monster, and you arrive at a verdict that will keep the Boys partying for quite some time.

Apparently they can get to Brooklyn without chugging a Monster… Who knew?

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