If the American legal system seems far from perfect, perhaps it is because we expect it to do the impossible—effectively administer justice individually on a case-by-case basis while also establishing precedent on future less clear-cut issues that affect society. From entertainment law to criminal cases to the world of politics, establishment of legal precedent can have effects far beyond those actually involved in the cases. And in almost all such cases, the establishment of precedent is only the beginning of the debate.
10Grand Upright Music vs. Warner Bros. Records
From its inception, rap relied heavily on the art of sampling—incorporating recorded passages from existing compositions to create new ones. While there was some debate within the industry about the use of samples, it wasn’t until 1991 that the issue was brought to court with an unlikely focal point from borderline novelty rapper and Juice Crew C-lister Biz Markie.
At issue was Markie’s song “Alone Again,” which was heavily composed around a sample of “Alone Again (Naturally),” a 1972 track by Irish songer/songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan. In a 2010 interview, O’Sullivan related that while Biz’s record company had approached him about gaining permission to use the sample, he had declined after hearing the finished track, as he was not fond the idea of his melancholy, personal song being used as a backdrop for Biz’s comedy stylings.
The court decided that artists must not only get permission but pay licensing fees to sample recorded work. That ruling remains controversial to this day, as it had the effect of limiting the use of sampling—a foundational piece of the architecture of rap music—to only those who could afford it. It can be argued that no court decision has had a greater impact on the creative direction of an art form.
9Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association
While parents have been searching for contributing factors in pop culture to their teens’ bad behavior since time immemorial, no one thing has proven to be a conclusive risk factor (besides lack of parental involvement). In 2005, violent video games were the target. California governor and former violent action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that restricted the sale of violent video games to minors. In response, the Video Software Dealers Association (rebranding itself as the Entertainment Merchants Association) filed suit in District Court. Thus began a six-year-long series of injunctions and appeals leading all the way the US Supreme Court.
The EMA asserted that video games were media, just like any other media, and were therefore protected speech under the First Amendment (despite their interactive nature). Since there was no compelling evidence to differentiate interactive media from any other, and also absent any studies conclusively linking video games to real-world behavior, the District Court agreed. The ruling was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in 2009 and by the Supreme Court in 2011.
8Buchwald vs. Paramount
In 1992, the Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America was a huge hit for Paramount Pictures, grossing $288 million, almost exactly 10 times its budget. Though this should be considered a financial success by any definition, Paramount soon found itself claiming in court that the film had made no “net profit,” a phrase that would become notorious in Hollywood for years afterward.
About 10 years prior, humor columnist Art Buchwald and his business partner had sold a script treatment titled King for a Day to Paramount for a mediocre sum of cash plus a percentage of future profits. Paramount appeared to have lost interest, enough that Buchwald was shopping his treatment to Warner Bros. In 1992, Paramount suddenly released Coming to America, which had an identical premise.