Judge Rules that Documentary’s Use of “Super Bowl Shuffle” Didn’t Violate Copyright

The U.S. District Court ruled on May 30, 2019 that a documentary’s feature of the “Super Bowl Shuffle” song in its film did not violate the song’s copyright.

The fan-favorite rap song, performed by Walter Payton and other Chicago Bears players, was originally made famous in 1985, when the Bears won Super Bowl XX. Snippets of the song were used in the documentary “85: The Greatest Team in Football History,” a 2016 film by Scott Prestin celebrating the Chicago Bears’ championship season.

The lawsuit was originally filed in November 2018 by Red Label Music Publishing and Red Label’s marketing agent, Renaissance Marketing Corporation. Red Label and Renaissance based their claims in copyright infringement, accusing the film and its Fox affiliates of “reproduction, display and performance of substantial portions of the words, music, sound recording, and music video without permission from Red Label and Renaissance despite the Fox companies’ knowledge that Red Label and Renaissance owned rights that were being infringed.” Specifically, the complaint accuses the documentary of reproducing “substantial portions of the Shuffle sound recording, word, and music.”

However, Federal Judge Virginia M. Kendall disagreed. In her ruling, Judge Kendall wrote that the film’s usage of the song falls under copyright law’s fair use doctrine, which allows copyrighted material to be used in critical or historical works without violation. She explained, “Fair use protects filmmakers and documentarians from the inevitable chilling effects of allowing an artist too much control over the dissemination of his or her work for historical purposes,” noting that, “in passing the Copyright Act, Congress never intended to discourage the makers of all sorts of historical documentaries and displays, or deplete society’s fund of informative speech.”

Furthermore, central to the judge’s decision was the fact that the documentary only featured eight seconds of the Shuffle’s audio, and 59 seconds of the music video, split into smaller segments throughout the documentary. As a result, “the filmmakers, then, used the ‘Super Bowl Shuffle’ not for its expressive content, but rather for its factual content,” according to her ruling.

Judge Kendall granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

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