sound recordings, composition infringement, composition infringement trials


Sound recordings are not musical compositions. Sound recordings embody musical compositions. Thus, when sound recordings appear in musical composition infringement trials, they do so as an imperfect facsimile of the composition they actualize. As a result, they can confuse and mislead juries tasked only with evaluating the similarity of the underlying composition. On the other hand, music is an aural medium: how can juries be expected to compare two songs without listening to their commercial embodiments?

Several recent cases have hinged on the admissibility of sound recordings in composition infringement trials. In doing so, they have implicated three fundamental questions: (1) Where does composition end and sound recording begin? (2) How has the evolution of creative and business practices in the music industry complicated the formerly tidy separation of composition and performance/recording? (3) What are the policy implications for courts defining “composition” more broadly or more narrowly, and how do these interact with the underlying policies governing sound recording evidentiary decisions?

This Note targets a seemingly simple question: how should courts approach the use of sound recordings in composition infringement trials? Any thorough answer, however, must grapple with the many underlying creative, industry, and public policy complexities that bear on that debate. Thus, this Note necessarily traces the historical convergence of composition and recording in creative, industry, and judicial contexts. It then discusses the underlying policy arguments that favor and oppose the unrestricted use of sound recordings in composition infringement trials. Finally, it marshals all of this context into a proposed “Triad” judicial framework that explicitly links a court’s inquiry into the “compositionality” of a recorded element to litigants’ burdens in seeking to admit, or preclude, that element as evidence of substantial similarity among compositions.