James J. Kilpatrick

Let us suppose, to be supposing, that an enterprising pornographer decides to seek a new market for his dirty pictures. He surmises, correctly, that law students have minds as dirty as the minds of, say, journalism students. So he puts together a law review filled with photographs of nekkid ladies.

Nothing novel here, you say? Ah, but in some of these dirty pictures, the body may be the body of Rosie l'Amour, the famed ecdysiast, but the face is the face of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The prospect boggles the mind.

As a commercial venture, such an enterprise seems unlikely, but it provides a hypothetical example for Debra Laws in her case against Sony Music Entertainment Inc. The facts are not seriously in dispute.

Debra Laws is a professional vocalist and recording artist. In 1979 she entered into a recording agreement with Elektra Records. Two years later, Elektra released a recording of her song, "Very Special." The ballad must have been at least a modest success, for 20 years later at least some people were still humming or whistling the tune.

In November 2002, an offer came to Elektra: Sony Music wanted permission to use a small "sample" of Laws' "Very Special" in an album it was about to record. The sample amounted to a 10-second segment at the beginning of the album and shorter snippets here and there. Elektra agreed. The album would carry an inconspicuous credit line acknowledging the words of Debra Laws, but there would be no share in royalties and no cash on the line.

Thus was born "All I Have," performed by recording artists Jennifer Lopez and LL Cool J. It turned into a huge commercial success. At one point in 2003 it was the No. 1 song in the United States. The recording has netted the producers more than $40 million.

So much money! And all Laws got was this lousy credit line? In February 2003, she sued Sony in California's state courts, charging the producer with misappropriation of her name and voice. The action soon shifted to U.S. District Court, where Sony moved successfully for summary judgment. A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit unanimously affirmed. Now Laws seeks Supreme Court review.

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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