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Rick Astley says Yung Gravy track infringed his publicity rights

By | Published on Friday 27 January 2023

Rick Astley

Rick Astley has sued Yung Gravy over the track ‘Betty (Get Money)’, which borrows heavily from the former’s hit and Rickrolling meme classic ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. Though it’s not a copyright case, with Astley claiming that his publicity rights were infringed when Young Gravy’s team employed a soundalike to recreate the ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ vocals within ‘Betty (Get Money)’.

Part of the recent trend of new pop songs overtly and heavily interpolating old pop songs, Yung Gravy’s people got all the required permissions from the writers and publishers of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ to incorporate the 1987 song into the 2022 release.

Indeed, as a result of licensing the interpolation, the writers of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ – the British 80s pop-making team that were Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman – get all the songwriting credits for ‘Betty (Get Money)’ on the database of US collecting society MLC.

However, according to Billboard, Astley’s lawsuit explains that Yung Gravy wasn’t able to get permission to actually sample the original recording of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. As a result, the rapper recreated the track hiring singer Popnick to imitate Astley’s voice on the vocals.

Now, with the song rights licensed via the deal with Stock, Aiken and Waterman, and with Yung Gravy’s recording being entirely new, no copyrights were infringed by the making and release of ‘Betty (Get Money)’.

Meanwhile, from a copyright perspective, Astley himself had no say over the creation of the new track. Because he’s not a writer of or copyright owner in the ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ song. And even if he had some control over the sound recording – maybe a veto right in contract in relation to sampling – the recording wasn’t used.

But, the new lawsuit argues, because Yung Gravy hired Popnick to imitate Astley’s “signature voice” – in such a way that many people assumed it was Astley’s vocals on the 2022 track – maybe his publicity rights under Californian law were infringed.

“A licence to use the original underlying musical composition does not authorise the stealing of the artist’s voice in the original recording”, write Astley’s lawyers. “So, instead, they resorted to theft of Mr Astley’s voice without a licence and without agreement”.

Astley’s lawsuit relies on a ruling in the US Ninth Circuits Appeal Court the year after the release of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ that involved a different Betty. In that case Bette Midler sued after Ford used a soundalike to record vocals for an advert. Midler likewise had no copyright claim, but successfully argued that the distinctive sound of her voice was itself protected under law.

In a statement to Billboard, Astley’s lawyer says: “Mr Astley owns his voice. California law is clear since the Bette Midler case more than 30 years ago that nobody has the right to imitate or use it without his permission”.

Given the recent popularity of interpolation in pop music, not to mention the increased importance of publicity and image rights as the metaverse evolves, and the AI tools being developed that can recreate the sound of a person’s vocals, there are lots of reasons why the Astley v Yung Gravy case could be very interesting indeed if it makes its way to court.

Here’s some further legal insight on what might be discussed along the way.