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Kraftwerk copyright dispute brought to Germany's top court

Rick FulkerNovember 25, 2015

Hip hop artist Sabrina Setlur sampled two seconds of Kraftwerk's music in 1997 - and the electronica pioneers weren't happy about it. After over a decade of litigation, the case is taken to Germany's highest court.

Kraftwerk. Copyright: imago/Eastnews
Image: Imago/Eastnews

After having occupied lower courts, the issue was taken up by Germany's Federal Constitutional Court on Wednesday (25.11.2015), having accepted the case of rapper Sabrina Setlur and producer Moses Pelham versus the band Kraftwerk.

Over a decade ago, the electro cult band from Düsseldorf recognized a two-second sequence taken its 1977 release "Metall auf Metall" (Metal on Metal) in the song "Nur mir" (Only Me) produced in 1997 by Setlur and Pelham. The sample is heard in endless repetitions on the track. Kraftwerk filed a lawsuit over copyright infraction and won it in 2006 at Hamburg's State Court.

Setlur and Pelham, along with music producer Martin Haas, were directed to remove the piece from the market and pay a penalty. Dissatisfied, Kraftwerk filed another suit demanding a higher penalty payment and won again in 2012 at the Federal High Court of Justice in Berlin.

“The use of external sound recordings without the authors' permission is allowable only if the new work is sufficiently different from the borrowed tones or sounds that it is to be seen as autonomous," wrote the court in its verdict.

Sabrina Setlur, Copyright: Malte Christians/Getty Images
Rapper Sabrina Setlur wants to clarify her artistic rights to sampleImage: Malte Christians/Getty Images

Whether that verdict is final will now be decided in a suit filed by Setlur and Pelham at the Federal Constitutional Court in a case expected to deal with the limits of artistic freedom and how different borrowed acoustical material must be from the original to be considered original.

Sampling, in which material of one's own or of others' creation is reused, is a common stylistic element in the music industry, especially in hip hop.