In February of 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California dismissed copyright infringement claims against Taylor Swift brought by a pair of songwriters. The songwriters’ allegations were that Defendant Swift ripped off the lines “playas, they gonna play” and “haters, they gonna hate” from the 3LW song “Playas Gon’ Play” and use a similar version of them in her own song “Shake It Off,’ which the plaintiffs believe constitute copyright infringement under federal laws. In dismissing these claims and the case, the district judge in the case held the lyrics at issue are “too brief, unoriginal, and uncreative to warrant protection under the Copyright Act.” The plaintiffs appealed the court’s decision to the U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
In October 2019, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s ruling that the plaintiffs’ lyrics were not sufficiently original to receive any copyright protection. In support of the holding, the court stated that “the absence of originality is not established either on the face of the complaint or through the judicially noticed matters.” The case was remanded and is now before the district court in California again.
Media companies or songwriters have been frequently sued over successful projects and songs. The case like in the above, as well as a recent case by a man who alleged Fox ripped off his concept to create the network’s famous television show “Empire” (See Jon Astor-White v. Daniel Strong, et al, Case No. 19-55735, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) illustrates the outcome of these kind of copyright disputes generally revolve around two main inquiries: (1) whether certain elements in work at issue are original, and (2) if so, whether there was an infringement of those elements by the defendant. However, the answers to these inquiries are heavily fact-based and dependent upon each case’s factual circumstances. It is important for someone who is thinking about initiating or defending a copyright infringement suit to hire an attorney who is not just familiar with how courts have ruled on the issues in the above but is also generally knowledgeable of copyright laws of the U.S. to resolve the dispute in his/her favor.