Two recent decisions make me wonder if we have gone too far–as a society–in letting our copyright laws run amuck. Here’s what I mean.
The first decision involves rapper Jay Z who, in 1999, had his first big hit with Big Pimpin’. Anyway, Jazy Z was sued in 2007 by an heir of an Egyptian composer who wrote a tune entitled Khosara Khosara in 1957. The allegation was that the signature riff in Khosara Khosara appears throughout Big Pimpin’ and the claim was that Jay Z had no right to use it. Just days ago, however, a federal judge dismissed the copyright infringement case against Jay Z before the case was even sent to a jury.
Editor’s Note: To put this case in perspective, Jay Z and his producer testified that they both believed that they had the right to use the riff so this is not a case where Jay Z merely took the signature line and began using it. Jay Z’s basis in alleging he could use the signature riff apparently stems from a prior payment made by Jay Z’s producer to the composer of the song to settle a dispute.
The second case involves Taylor Swift. Earlier this week a California federal judge dismissed a copyright lawsuit against the pop star after Swift was accused of stealing another artist’s lyrics for her hit song Shake It Off. Swift was sued by musician Jessie Braham who claimed that his song, Haters Gone Hate, had the same 22-word phrase that Swift used in Shake It Off. Braham filed the suit in federal court himself without legal counsel and he was seeking $42 million in damages from Swift and her label (Sony).
The judge ruled that Braham did not provide enough factual evidence in the case and that his allegations did not rise above a speculative level. Admittedly, the judge found that Braham would be given the opportunity to file a new complaint if certain deficiencies in his lawsuit were corrected. Nevertheless, at the end of the day the case was dismissed.
Here’s the point. In both Jay Z’s case and for Taylor Swift, they both were dragged into court over arguably speculative allegations. Did they infringe and essentially steal someone’s else’s work? Well, two judges trained in the law felt not. However, that did not mean that both artists did not have to incur legal expenses and be forced to endure some element of stress and distraction in their daily lives while fending off their respective lawsuits.
Undoubtedly, there are times when artists steal from one another and the recent verdict in the Pharrell/Robin Thicke decision makes that clear. (You can read out coverage on that verdict here). In that event, the infringing artist must pay. However, not every similarity between songs equals a pay day and our system of justice needs to right the ship, so to speak, to make it clear that if you are going to allege infringement you better come with more than a hunch. The sad part is that up until now it appears that a hunch was all you needed to get into court. These rulings will hopefully change that and turn the pendulum back to where it should be which is, only legitimate claimants are invited. Any other result isn’t right, you copy that?