In Peters v. West, No. 11-1708, 2012 WL 3553417 (7th Cir. Aug. 20, 2012), the Seventh Circuit found two identically named hip hop songs were not similar enough to support a finding of copyright infringement. Plaintiff Vincent “Vince P” Peters wrote, recorded, and distributed a song entitled Stronger, based in part on Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous aphorism, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Desiring to “make it” in the hip-hop industry, Vince P pitched the song to music producer, John Monopoly. Vince P and Monopoly tentatively agreed that Monopoly would be Vince P’s music producer; however, plans fell through and the project stalled.
Shortly after this meeting, Kanye West released a song also entitled Stronger, which became a huge hit, selling over three million copies and eventually earning West a Grammy. John Monopoly also happened to be a close friend of West. According to the Plaintiff, West copied the plaintiff’s song, evidenced by the fact that both featured a chorus (or “hook”) using Nietzsche’ maxim, both used similar rhyming schemes, and both contained “incongruous” references to supermodel Kate Moss, who is not ordinarily featured in hip-hop lyrics.
In upholding the District Court’s determination that no copyright infringement had occurred, the Seventh Circuit clarified its test for copyright infringement. Absent an admission that the defendant copied the work in question, the plaintiff must prove (1) opportunity to copy the work, or access; and (2) evidence of similarity. The Seventh Circuit rejected the so-called “inverse ratio” rule, which states that if there is a strong proof of access, the plaintiff only need demonstrate a weak proof of similarity, and vice versa. Rather, the two issues are independent of one another. Once a plaintiff has shown access, he or she must separately demonstrate (regardless of how good or restricted the opportunity was) that the allegedly infringing work copied the original.
The Seventh Circuit agreed West had an opportunity to copy Vince P’s song through his relationship with Monopoly. However, the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the two works were similar. Use of Nietzsche’s phrase was not original. In fact, during trial, pop artist Kelly Clarkson released a song Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You), which also featured the common saying. Additionally, Vince P could not protect the rhyming pattern used in his song because, “Copyright protects actual expression, not methods of expression.” Finally, the reference to Kate Moss did not demonstrate copying. The two lines were “entirely different,” and using a model to refer to a beautiful woman is commonplace. Therefore, Vince P did not plausibly demonstrate that West’s Stronger infringed on his Stronger, notwithstanding the similar hooks, shared title, and references to Kate Moss.