Addressing issues of copyright infringement between a struggling artist and a music mogul, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that Vincent Peters failed to establish Kanye West’s song “Stronger” meets the 7th Circuit’s standard for establishing copyright infringement that not only requires a showing of defendant’s access to plaintiff’s copyrighted material, but also substantial similarity between the works of plaintiff and defendant. Vincent Peters (p/k/a Vince P.) v. Kanye West, Case No. 11-1708 (7th Cir., Aug. 20, 2012) (Wood, J.).
This case involves Vince P. and Kanye West, two artists in the cutthroat music industry at different stages in their careers, both fighting to protect their original works of creation. Looking to “make it” in the hip-hop industry, Vince P. wrote and recorded a song entitled “Stronger.” The title comes from a key line in the song’s hook (i.e., chorus), which uses German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphorism—“what does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Vince P.’s search for a producer led him to John Monopoly, a well-known executive in the hip-hop world, but more importantly a close friend and business manager to West. Vince P. sent Monopoly a copy of his recording and gave him a second copy when he met with him in person. Monopoly agreed to produce for Peters if he was able to secure financing. Unable to secure financial backing, no further communications were made between Peters and Monopoly.
Less than a year after Vince P. and Monopoly met, West released his own song also entitled “Stronger” which earned him the #1 spot in the Billboard charts and a Grammy. Monopoly was listed as the manager on West’s album featuring the “Stronger” song. Believing that West’s song had infringing similarities to his own recording, Vince P. obtained a formal copyright registration for his song and filed an infringement action in federal court. After Vince P.’s complaint failed to survive a motion to dismiss, he appealed.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit reviewed de novo the district court’s determinations regarding the similarity between the two songs and the conclusion of non-infringement. The court acknowledged that the standards for determining whether a party has in fact copied another’s work are “surprisingly muddled.” The court held the 7th Circuit’s standards for proving copyright infringement is met by showing that the defendant had an actual opportunity to copy the original work, as well as that the two works “share enough unique features to give rights to a breach of duty not to copy another’s work.”
The court found there was no question that Vince P.’s allegations supported an inference that West had access to Vince P.’s recording of “Stronger.” Monopoly clearly received two copies of Vince P.’s song, and Monopoly is also credited as the manager on West’s album. Evidence of a close collaboration between Monopoly and West suggested that Monopoly could have passed Vince P.’s song to West during production of his own album, and therefore West had an actual opportunity to copy Vince P.’s original work under the 7th Circuit’s standards.
But proof of access alone is not enough to find infringement. The court next considered whether both works were substantially similar. Although the court found it an “unusual coincidence” that both works used Nietzsche’s phrase, West effectively convinced the court that the notable aphorism has been repeatedly used in song lyrics over the past century, including by renowned artist Kelly Clarkson. The ubiquity of the phrase, in view of its use in numerous other songs, lead the court to conclude West does not infringe.
Vince P. also argued that West’s song infringes on the rhyme pattern he used in his own chorus. However, the Court was quick to decline Vince P.’s expansive interpretation of his copyrights, holding that a copyright protects actual expression, not methods of expression. But even so, the court’s own examination of the rhyme pattern used by Vince P. and West determined them to be different.
Finally, Vince P. argued that both songs contain “incongruous” references to super-model Kate Moss, a person not typically featured in rap or hip-hop lyrics. The Court was once again was unwilling to grant Vince P. protection on the mere use of Kate Moss’ name, particularly when the lines in the song were entirely different and the fact that it is common to refer to models as shorthand for beauty.