Rick Astley has recently taken Soundcloud rapper Yung Gravy to court in the US over his 2022 track 'Betty (Get Money)' which ‘interpolates’ Astley's 80s hit 'Never Gonna Give You Up', of rickrolling fame.
Astley alleges that, whilst Yung Gravy had secured the right to reproduce the music and lyrics of 'Never Gonna Give You Up', his voice was also impersonated on the track without a licence to do so and that this constitutes a violation of his right of publicity, false endorsement and unfair competition.
The key point to note here is the difference between interpolation and sampling. In popular music, interpolation involves taking part of an existing piece of music and incorporating it into a new piece of music, such as taking a melody from an existing song and re-recording it. Alternatively, sampling involves actually taking part of an existing sound recording and incorporating it into a new piece of music - as was prevalent during the golden age of hip hop thanks to samplers such as the MPC60, MPC2000 and SP1200.
For example, Flo Rida’s 2009 track ‘Right Round’ interpolates Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin me Round (Like a Record); the lyrics and melody were re-recorded as opposed to a part of the sound recording of the song actually having been taken. In contrast, the Pharcyde's 1995 classic 'Runnin' directly samples Stan Getz' and Luiz Bonfá's 1963 sound recording of 'Saudade Vem Correndo'.
Astley claims that Yung Gravy had the right to interpolate 'Never Gonna Give You Up' but not to sample it and therefore the recreation of Astley's voice constituted an "unauthorised, intentional, theft of his voice for commercial purposes".
Whilst issued in the US, as far as the UK is concerned there is no intellectual property right which directly provides for the protection of a voice. However, this could be afforded under the law of passing off provided that a claimant can show sufficient reputation and 'goodwill' in their voice as an artist. This would likely necessitate a distinctive voice, such as is the case with Astley. The claimant would then need to show that there has been a misrepresentation which has deceived the public into thinking that there is a connection between the musical work of the claimant and the defendant and that this has, or will, cause the claimant damage.
The law of passing off does not exist in the US, however Astley's lawyers have highlighted the US case of Midler v Ford, in which famous singer Bette Midler successfully sued Ford for using a copycat singer to imitate her voice in an advertisement when it had only obtained a licence to use the underlying musical compilation to one of her songs.
Astley is represented by the same lawyer who helped Marvin Gaye's estate to successfully claim copyright infringement against Robin Thicke, Pharrell and TI over 2013's 'Blurred Lines'. If history is anything to follow, Yung Gravy could have his hands full with this one.