Here’s the story. Irdial put out a CD full of recordings of shortwave “numbers stations” called The Conet Project. The numbers stations are broadcast anonymously and more or less everyone acknowledges they have something to do with international espionage. For this reason, the recordings themselves are probably either not covered by copyright at all (in the case of recordings made by the United States government) or are protected by rights that are extremely unlikely to be enforced, since doing so would blow the broadcaster’s cover.
Wilco sampled one of these recordings at the end of “Poor Places” on their album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — a numbers station repeating the words “Yankee… Hotel… Foxtrot”. The sample was taken from the Conet Project CD. Irdial sued WEA, Wilco’s record company, for copyright infringement in the UK. They claim, first, that their recording is unique because of the radio interference that surrounds it, and that this interference gives them a copyright in the recording. Second, they edited the recording to make it more interesting. Third, they processed the recording to make it clearer . Each of these, they say, gives them exclusive rights in their recording.
I don’t know UK copyright law very well, so I don’t know whether this claim has more merit there. But under American law, Irdial probably would have lost had the case gone to trial. First, simply recording a radio broadcast does not give a person rights in the recording. A recording of a preexisting transmission does not have the requisite originality for copyrightability. Second, Irdial’s editing may have been sufficient “selection and arrangement” to give rise to a copyright in the whole track, preventing wholesale verbatim copying. But from the description they give, there were no edits within the “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” sample; the sample Wilco used was an unedited slice of Irdial’s source material, and thus Irdial’s edits cannot have given rise to copyright in the sample. Finally, the equalization and processing. Irdial admits that the EQ was “to remove noise” — not for any creative purpose. This would be the closest issue, I think, but WEA could argue that any new matter added by Irdial in the noise-reduction process is purely functional, increasing the clarity of the recording, rather than constituting protectible expression.
Given that last issue, I understand why WEA settled; this would end up being a fact-intensive dispute that would be expensive to litigate. But I don’t think the Wilco sample, in fact, infringed Irdial’s copyrights.