Taylor Swift was sued by R&B singer Jesse Braham for US$42 million for alleged copyright infringement in the lyrics of her chart toppings song “Shake it Off”.   Two weeks later, the claim was dismissed.

It seems that every famous singer these days has been sued for copyright infringement. Think Pharrell WilliamsBeyonceJay ZSam SmithColdplay… and the list goes on. This led us to ponder the question of “Why?

The copyright claim against Taylor Swift

In 2013, Jesse Braham released a song called “Haters Gone Hate” and obtained copyright registration in the US. Taylor Swift released “Shake It Off” in 2014 as the lead single on her album “1989”, which has sold 8.6 million copies worldwide.

In his complaint, Jesse Braham states “if Jessie Braham did not write the song ‘Haters Gone Hate,’ then Taylor Swift would not have written the song ‘Shake It Off.’”   Braham alleges that that the stolen lyrics amount to 92% of the lyrics used in “Shake It Off” (presumably because of repetition).

A copy of Jesse Braham’s complaint against Taylor Swift is available here.

Here is a comparison of the lyrics:

Click here to view the table.

While Jesse Braham may own the copyright in his lyrics as a whole, a question is likely to arise as to whether the allegedly stolen elements “haters gone hate” and “playas gone play” are protected by copyright. To be protected by copyright, a work must be “original”.   Many have argued (eg here) that “haters gonna hate” is a long-lived hip hop idiom dating back to the early 1990s, and similarly, that “playas gonna play” and “fakers gonna fake” are not original. For example, a band 3LW released “Players gon play” in 2000.

On 10 November 2015, Jesse Braham’s claim was thrown out by US District Court Judge Gail Standish. It seems that Judge Standish might be a Taylor Swift fan, using some Taylor Swift Lyrics to dismiss the claim:

Clcik here to view the image.

Why are famous singers so often sued for copyright infringement?

One of the first things that I thought when I saw the story about Taylor Swift was that I was not entirely surprised. This is not because I had ever heard the Jesse Braham song, or because I suspected Taylor Swift might have copied the lyrics. It was simply because, as discussed above, it seems that every famous singer is sued these days for copyright infringement.

But why? Here are some musings (not definitive of course) as to why this might be the case:

  1. Other cases don’t make the headlines. Big name celebrities being sued for copyright infringement is always going to be news-worthy. There are many more copyright infringement disputes out there that don’t make the news. The copyright infringement cases that reach our ears are unduly weighted towards celebrities.
  2. Musical inspiration and referencing. Musicians draw inspiration and ideas from other great songs, and this will not necessarily be copyright infringement. However, the fine line between musical referencing and copyright infringement is sometimes difficult to discern. Or should we say the “blurred line”? The Marvin Gaye and Pharrell Williams/Robin Thicke case is a classic example. Pharrell Williams unsuccessfully argued that argued that while “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” had a similar “feel” and composition elements, Marvin Gaye could not claim copyright over an entire genre, as opposed to a specific work.
  3. Musical Recipes: It has also been said that there are only so many combinations of musical notes or chord progressions that sound fantastic, and so inevitably, many songs will share these. This is sometimes known as the “four chord recipe”. One of our favourite examples of this is the Australian comedy group Axis of Awesome’s song “4 chords” in which, using the same chord progression, play 47 different pop songs. This chord progression dates all the way back to Pachabel’s Canon in D.
  4. Litigation is expensive. The cost of bringing a proceeding may be disproportionate to the amount of damages recoverable, particularly in cases where the person who has infringed copyright has not made a lot of money out of the infringement.   Rather than bring proceedings, the copyright owner may choose to just “shake it off” or settle the claim before bringing proceedings.
  5. “Shake It Off” is very successful: By contrast, “Shake It Off” has made a whole lot of money. If the claim is successful, the potential damages could be large. Take for example the recent damages award (US$3.2 million) to the estate of Marvin Gaye against Robin Thicke and Pharrel Williams for “Blurred Lines”. Damages or an account of profits will take into account the success of the song. It is no wonder then that we see more copyright infringement claims brought in respect of very successful songs.

What are your thoughts? What are some other reasons why we see so many celebrity copyright infringement cases?