Beyonce sued for sampling Messy Mya: the YouTube legalities explained

beyonce messy mya youtube copyright

Both YouTube and Beyonce have had a busy start to the month. That trend is seemingly set to continue, at least for the latter.

While just a few days ago she was celebrated on Instagram, Beyonce is reportedly being sued for using vocal samples from a deceased YouTuber in her track Formation without permission.

Voice clips from social media celebrity Messy Mya’s video, Booking The Hoes From New Wildin, is used within the first ten seconds of the Lemonade track by producer Mike WiLL and Queen B. Another sample of another Mya clip can be heard around the minute mark.

The three-times Grammy nominated track was earmarked as a song of resilience and resistance against repression, but Mya’s estate believes that Beyonce’s production team didn’t ask if the sample could indeed be used, and wants damages of US$20-million to be repaid.

Messy Mya was famous on YouTube for his conversational vlogs documenting life in New Orleans

Mya, who was shot and killed in 2010, became famous for his vlog-like conversational videos on the streets of New Orleans, and a number of catchy quips.

A history of YouTube sampling

While this is the latest high-profile legal spat, Beyonce is by no means the only artist in history to use a YouTube clip in their track.

US musician Skrillex is probably most famous for doing this, cutting the Crazy German Kid clip of 2016 into two of his tracks. Canadian rapper Drake has also been in the news for use of melodies sampled from YouTube in his 2011 ballad Look What You’ve Done.

Beyonce’s album credits don’t seem to mention the use of the sample anywhere, though, and there’s no indication that Mya granted Beyonce license to sample the snippet. According to a Vulture piece, the sample also wasn’t the only thing left uncredited in the track.

But can Mya’s estate hold Beyonce’s team liable for damages?

Mya vs. Beyonce: the YouTube legalities explained

Messy Mya’s clips were uploaded under the YouTube Standard Licence, which we asked UWC law lecturer and Attorney of the High Court of South Africa, Pieter Koornhof to explain.

“The Standard YouTube Licence (found in YouTube’s Terms of Service) allows using another’s copyright in relatively limited ways. Firstly, the Standard Licence awards YouTube certain rights over your content (namely use, reproduction, distribution, adaptation, display and performance — basically the functional rights you need to work with someone else’s audio or video) insofar as it effectively allows YouTube to perform their service,” he explains.

But this doesn’t mean just anyone can use content you’ve uploaded to YouTube. At least not without permission.

“Basically, the general position is that you would require permission. There are some licences which don’t require permission but only acknowledgement (such as the Creative Commons licences) — these licences might however bar you from using any samples commercially,” Koornhof adds.

Even so, these legal battles are barely ever this cut and dry.

Still, this case could set the precedent for all future YouTube samples used in music in the future, and one that could shape the direction of music production.

Feature image: Nat Ch Villa via Flickr (CC 2.0, resized)

Andy Walker, former editor


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