Universal Music Publishing Group Faces Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Over Mary J. Blige’s ‘Real Love’

universal music publishing group faces lawsuit over mary j blige real love song
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universal music publishing group faces lawsuit over mary j blige real love song
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Photo Credit: Condé Nast / Vogue Taiwan / CC by 3.0

Mary J. Blige’s 1992 hit ‘Real Love’ is at the center of a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against Universal Music Publishing Group.

On Thursday, April 4, Tuff City Records filed a complaint alleging that Universal Music Group’s publishing arm used an unlicensed sample from the Honey Drippers’ 1973 funk song, “Impeach the President,” in Mary J. Blige’s 1992 hit, “Real Love.” The song’s legendary drum break has been sampled countless times by hip-hop and R&B artists, including 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Run-DMC, and most recently, Doja Cat.

The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan federal court, says that attorneys have “advised defendant repeatedly of the presence of the uncleared sample,” but that Universal Music Publishing has not addressed the issue. Notably, Mary J. Blige herself is not named in the lawsuit, nor is she accused of any wrongdoing.

Tuff City asserts that UMG Recordings, another Universal subsidiary and owner of the “Real Love” master recording, has already reached an agreement regarding the use of the sample on the sound recording — but Universal’s publishing arm has not done the same in relation to the song’s underlying composition.

“Defendant has repeatedly refused to engage Plaintiff in substantive negotiations to rectify the foregoing, let alone agreed to compensate Plaintiff for the past infringement or on an ongoing basis,” wrote Tuff City attorney Hillel Parness in the filing. “Defendant’s refusal to cooperate with Plaintiff is difficult to reconcile with the fact that Plaintiff reached an agreement with UMG Recordings.”

Tuff City Records owns a substantial catalog of classic songs, and has filed numerous copyright lawsuits over the past 15 years, typically alleging the use of unlicensed samples. Artists who have been sued by Tuff City include Jay-Z, Christina Aguilera, Beastie Boys, and Frank Ocean. Some of those lawsuits have gone smoother than others; in 2018, Tuff City was ordered to repay Beastie Boys’ legal fees — hundreds of thousands of dollars — to defend a case that was “clearly without merit.”

This also isn’t the first time Tuff City has sued over “Impeach the President.” In 1991, Tuff City sued Sony Music and Def Jam over allegations that producer Marley Marl sampled the song without permission on LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl” and “Six Minutes of Pleasure.”

That lawsuit was notable as one of the first legal “attacks” on sampling, which was prevalent in hip-hop, but at the time rarely involved seeking permission or paying for licenses. Tuff City eventually settled the case on unknown terms.