Madonna's De Minimis Use Of Horn Segment In 'Vogue' Not Copyright Infringement

VMG Salsoul, LLC v. Madonna Louise Ciccone, No. 13-57104/14-55837 (9th Cir. June 2, 2016) [decision].

The 9th Circuit Court of appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of Madonna, holding that any copying of the plaintiff's horn segment in the Madonna song "Vogue" was de minimis and not an infringement of either plaintiff's composition or sound recording.  However, the appellate court reversed the award of attorney's fees to Madonna, holding that plaintiff's claim, which was premised on a legal theory adopted by (only) the 6th Circuit that use of an identical copy of a portion of a sound recording is an infringement, was objectively reasonable.

The 9th Circuit had previously held that the de minimis exception applies to claims of infringement of a copyright composition, but it was an open question in the Circuit whether the exception applied to claims of infringement of a copyrighted sound recording.  The Court concluded that, as to both the composition and sound recording, an average audience would not recognize the appropriation.  And then, the Court refused to adopt the bright-line rule adopted by the 6th Circuit that for copyright sound recordings, any unauthorized copying - no matter how trivial - constitutes infringement.  (Bridegeport Music v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 792 (6th Cir. 2005)).  The 9th Circuit recognized that it was taking the unusual step of creating a circuit split, but found that it had an independent duty to determine congressional intent.  Accordingly, it held that the de minimis exception applied to sound recordings.