Three Historical Copyright Disputes

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Vanilla Ice vs. Queen and David Bowie (1990)

To begin this case round-up, it bears mentioning that copyright is distinguished from other forms of intellectual property by its focus on original works of authorship – on tangible forms of creation such as writing or drawings. As opposed to ideas or brands, which would respectively be covered by patents or trademarks, copyrights are attached to works of literature, art and other works, guaranteeing their creators the sole rights to their use and distribution.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the highly profitable music industry has witnessed some of the largest copyright disputes in history. Perhaps most famous among these came in the wake of the 1990 release of Vanilla Ice’s song Ice Ice Baby. Listeners quickly found that Ice had sampled the bass line of Under Pressure, Queen and David Bowie’s hit single produced in collaboration a decade prior, without crediting the original creators.

Representatives of the artists threatened to bring a copyright infringement claim in retaliation and, in a now infamous defence of his song, Ice argued that the melodies of the two songs were distinct because his work added a note to the end of the sampled riff. He later retracted this statement, claiming that it was intended as a joke. The case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, with both Bowie and Queen members receiving songwriting credits on the track.

While largely remembered today for the enduring pop culture legacy it created, the case also sparked discussions around sampling in music, as well as the punitive nature of cases of copyright infringement and whether enough was being done to punish cases of overt plagiarism. It was argued by some that Ice had not adequately compensated Queen and Bowie for the loss of potential credibility caused by his appropriation of the melody, which now inextricably links their work to him without their having been offered a chance to refuse.

As opposed to ideas or brands, which would respectively be covered by patents or trademarks, copyrights are attached to works of literature, art and other works, guaranteeing their creators the sole rights to their use and distribution.

Naruto vs. Slater (2015)

A more recent dispute than the others in this collection, the so-called “monkey selfie” battle that reached international fame had its roots in British wildlife photographer David Slater’s visit to the Tangkoko Reserve in Indonesia in 2011. While photographing a troop of crested macaques, Slater positioned his camera on a tripod, after which one of his subjects approached the camera and took several pictures of himself. Slater sent these pictures to his agent, after which they appeared in the Daily Mail and several other publications, including Slater’s own self-published book.

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Disputes over the ownership of the picture began in 2014 when Wikipedia uploaded one of Slater’s monkey pictures to its database and tagged it as being in the public domain, reasoning that a picture taken by an animal could not be protected under copyright. The site resisted Slater’s attempts to have the picture taken down. Following this, the campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued Slater in a California court in 2015 on behalf of the macaque (named Naruto in the suit). PETA attempted to assert copyright over the picture, claiming that it had resulted from a series of purposeful and voluntary actions by Naruto, unaided by Mr Slater”.

US District Judge William Orrick dismissed the action in a provisional ruling in 2016 on the grounds that animals do not have standing in a court of law and therefore cannot sue for copyright infringement. PETA appealed the decision, leading to surreal scenes in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals as judges and lawyers cracked monkey jokes and argued whether PETA might have identified the wrong macaque.

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PETA and Slater eventually settled the case out of court in 2018. Precise details of the settlement are unknown, though PETA have stated that the terms include a commitment by Slater to donate 25% of the picture’s future earnings to charities protecting the crested macaque’s Indonesian habitats. “PETA and David Slater agree that this case raises important, cutting-edge issues about expanding legal rights for nonhuman animals, a goal that they both support, and they will continue their respective work to achieve this goal,” the two parties said, according to a joint statement quoted on PETA’s website.

Apple vs. Microsoft (1988)

Copyright is most commonly associated with the protection of books, songs, films and other forms of entertainment, but this is far from the full range of works it may cover. The audiovisual elements of a computer’s graphical user interface (GUI), now an integral element to modern computing, are also subject to copyright. A dispute over the ownership of one of the first invented GUIs would form the core of one of the most formative copyright infringement lawsuits in the tech sector.

Microsoft, led by Bill Gates, was the first outside developer to receive a prototype of Apple’s Macintosh system ahead of its release in 1984 for the purposes of creating productivity software for the system. After its public unveiling, Gates petitioned Apple to license the Macintosh software to outside developers to create a new standard in personal computing. This proposal was rejected by Jean-Louis Gassée, who had become head of the Macintosh project after the ousting of Steve Jobs.

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In 1985, Microsoft released its Windows 1.0 operating system, which shared many similarities with the Macintosh. Though Apple initially threatened to sue, the companies were able to come to an agreement wherein Apple licensed Macintosh design elements to Microsoft for use in Windows. In December 1987, when Windows 2.0 was released – containing even more design elements derived from the Macintosh GUI – Apple forwent threats of legal action and immediately filed suit against Microsoft for copyright infringement.

As the dispute played out, however, the wording of the 1985 license agreement regarding the Macintosh’s visual display elements worked against Apple’s case. The agreement was discovered to stipulate that to use these derivative works in present and future software programs.” This specification of “future” programs – taken to include Windows 2.0 – eventually led to Apple being handed a loss in 1989 when Judge William Schwarzer found that 179 of the 189 visual display elements at issue in Apple’s copyright infringement suit were covered by the license agreement. The remaining 10, Schwarzer said, were not eligible for copyright protection due to the merger doctrine, which holds that ideas are not copyrightable. Apple’s attempts to appeal the decision were ended by the Supreme Court in 1995.

The loss was devastating for Apple and a landmark for the computing industry. Though the return of Steve Jobs helped to stabilise the company and eventually grow it into a giant, Apple and Macintosh’s survival remained on a knife edge throughout the mid-to-late 1990s, during which the victorious Microsoft and its Windows operating system became dominant in personal computing. The tech scene would likely not exist the way it does today without the influence of this copyright dispute.

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