This is worrisome: Drake has been sued for copying a beat.

There are a several things in music that cannot be copyrighted because they form the basic building blocks of songs. They are:

  1. A song title.
  2. A guitar riff
  3. A beat

Let’s focus on number 3 for a second. Beats are rhythmic figures form the groove of a song and have so far been immune from any copyright infringement laws. If beats and drum breaks were suddenly fair game, then thousands of people would be sued over the use of Clyde Stubblefield’s “Funky Drummer” break and the ubiquitous Amen Break, the most important sample in the history of electronic music.

But in the super-litigious post-“Blurred Lines” world where ambulance-chasing copyright lawyers are looking for anyone to sue over the slightest similarity (cf. insane allegations again Katy Perry and Lady Gaga), it was just a matter of time when we’d have an issue involving a beat. That time has arrived.

Drake, his collaborators, and a couple of record labels have been sued for allegedly using beats created by producer Sam Scully without his permission.

There are Drake two songs involved: “In My Feelings” and “Nice for What” from his 2018 album, Scorpion. Scully says that both tracks feature a beat lifted from his 2000 song entitled “Roll Call.” Scully (real name: Samuel Nicholas III) believes that the figure he calls “The Beat” was taken in toto without permission.

He’s now asking for three things: (1) That the courts invalidate the copyrights on both songs; (2) profits from the two songs be turned over to him; and (3) compensatory damages.

In all of human history, beats have never, ever been copyrightable. Should Scully/Nicholas win this one–the lawsuit has been filed in Louisiana where juries can be malleable–it will be a disaster for all of music.

More background here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

2 thoughts on “This is worrisome: Drake has been sued for copying a beat.

  • August 27, 2019 at 12:55 pm

    There’s nothing in the Canadian Copyright Act that says a beat can’t be copyrightable. Works have to be the product of an ‘exercise in skill and judgement’ to be copyrightable. (US copyright law has a similar standard). And maybe beats are such a fundamental building block that, on their own, they don’t represent an exercise in skill and judgement… but if someone can demonstrate that their beat DID take skill and judgement to put together, then I’m not sure why they couldn’t claim copyright infringement if someone stole it.

    The RIAA and it’s ilk fought for years for more and stricter copyright protections. Now musicians will reap what the RIAA sowed, with people claiming copyright over every little riff and tag.

  • February 8, 2023 at 5:37 pm

    Sampling (extraction from a sound recording) can be actionable as infringement if the copying is nontrivial. A very small sample that’s not recognizable to the ordinary listener may not be actionable copying per the Ninth Circuit in the VMA Salsoul v. Madonna case over “Vogue.”

    The 6th Circuit rule is that any amount of sampling may be copyright infringement.


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