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Yung Gravy, wearing a purple No. 40 jersey, performs next to a cheerleader before a Minnesota Vikings game
Rapper Yung Gravy performs before an NFL football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2022, in Minneapolis. (AP photo: Stacy Bengs)

Lawsuit alleges theft of voice

Rick Astley says Yung Gravy song ‘flagrantly impersonated’ him

Rick Astley has been making the rounds in social media feeds recently. This time, it is not to give you an earworm. Astley is alleging that his voice has been stolen by another artist.

Astley is an English singer and songwriter best known for his song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” The song appeared on his 1987 debut album. It was his solo debut single, skyrocketing to the top of several international charts. Astley did not write the song and does not control it.

About 20 years elapsed before the “rickroll” brought Astley back into the mainstream. Rickrolling is an internet meme where a viewer is surprised by the music video for “Never Gonna Give You Up” when clicking on a disguised hyperlink. This initially made the rounds on the internet in 2007, making both the song and Astley relevant again. The music video was viewed more than 1 billion times on YouTube.

It was not surprising, then, when Matthew Hauri — a rapper from Rochester, Minnesota, better known as Yung Gravy — interpolated the musical composition of the song onto his June 2022 song “Betty (Get Money).” Yung Gravy frequently samples older music, combining these older themes with trap music.

In January 2023, Astley filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court. He alleges in the complaint that Yung Gravy committed “unauthorized, international theft of his voice for commercial purposes” when he “flagrantly impersonated” his voice and “falsely stated [Astley] endorsed them.”

Yung Gravy obtained the copyright license to recreate the melody and lyrics from the song. However, Astley maintains that Yung Gravy erred when he stole Astley’s voice. “A license to use the original underlying musical composition does not authorize the stealing of the artist’s voice in the original recording,” the complaint reads.

Rick Astley poses for a portrait

British singer-songwriter Rick Astley poses for a portrait before a concert at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, on June 17, 2022. (AP photo: Charles Rex Arbogast)

Astley is not the first person to allege that someone stole his voice. Both Bette Midler and Tom Waits have advanced this argument. In Midler’s case, brought before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a voice impersonator who sounded almost indistinguishable from Midler was featured in a commercial for a Mercury Sable. Waits, whose case was heard in Los Angeles federal court, argued that a vocal performance in an ad for Salsa Rio Doritos imitated his voice. Both Midler and Waits prevailed.

Still, these cases are not a dime a dozen. Two Minnesota law professors spoke with Minnesota Lawyer to detail exactly what Astley is arguing.

Tom Cotter, professor at University of Minnesota Law, affirms that Astley’s allegation is that the “performance of the soundalike version constitutes a violation of Astley’s right of publicity,” which is a right recognized in some states preventing the unauthorized use of one’s name, image, or likeness (NIL).

Sharon Sandeen, director of the Intellectual Property Institute at Mitchell Hamline, affirms that “this is not a copyright case” but one that is based on NIL. “In many states, under state law, there are statutory or common law name, image, and likeness rights,” Sandeen says. “And in some states, you can add a ‘V’—‘NILV’, as in voice.” Sandeen says that in Minnesota, the state was considering adopting a statute after Prince died that provides a post-mortem name, image, and likeness right. This is something they never moved forward with. Additionally, Cotter says that Astley asserts that the Lanham Act has been violated because use of the soundalike is likely to confuse consumers into thinking Astley endorses something he does not.

Sandeen notes that covers are not that unusual. Generally, when someone does a cover, however, they put their own spin on the song. The melody and words may be the same, but it does not sound identical. “They did it in a way to sound like the original voice,” Sandeen states. Astley argues that a consumer is likely to be confused that he actually appeared on the track.

Does Astley have a chance in court? Cotter does not believe that Astley will prevail in this case, saying that Astley’s case differs from that of Midler and Waits because Yung Gravy is using the soundalike for artistic purposes. He believes that copyright law would preempt the state-law right of publicity claim because it is used for artistic and not purely commercial purposes. Cotter also says that applying the right of publicity and Lanham Act claims would inhibit Yung Gravy’s freedom of speech since the speech was noncommercial. “Yung Gravy’s song would, in my view, be characterized as noncommercial speech even though he makes a living from singing and performing,” Cotter says.

Astley is seeking a jury trial and is seeking “in the millions of dollars” of damages sustained as a result of the song’s impermissible use of his voice. Richard Busch, Astley’s attorney, did not respond to request for comment.

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