The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has concluded that a man who wrote a song called “Natasha,” about an ill-fated romance between a U.K. man and a Ukraine woman, cannot maintain a copyright infringement claim against Elton John and Bernard Taupin for their famous song “Nikita,” about a Western man who sees and desires a Communist woman he can never meet.

In 1982, while working as a photographer on a Russian cruise ship, Guy Hobbs had a brief love affair with a Russian waitress. He was unsuccessful in publishing his song “Natasha,” inspired by that romance. Hobbs registered the copyright for his song in the U.K. in 1983 and sent it to several publishers, including Big Pig Music, Ltd., John and Taupin’s publisher. Big Pig also rejected the song. In 1985, John released “Nikita,” copyrighted by Big Pig with John and Taupin listed on the registration. Hobbs did not see the written lyrics to “Nikita” until 2001. He tried unsuccessfully to get compensation from John and Taupin and, in 2012, filed suit against them and Big Pig for copyright infringement in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Although this was 27 years after “Nikita” was written and 11 years after Hobbs first encountered it, none of the defendants raised the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations as a defense.

The District Court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. The judge concluded that none of the allegedly similar elements in the two songs, considered alone or in combination, was sufficient to constitute copyright infringement. The judge believed that a Seventh Circuit case, Peters v. West, 692 F.3d 629 (7th Cir. 2012), held that a copyright infringement claim could not be based on a combination of elements that could not be protected individually, no matter how unique the combination.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit found no infringement because the two songs were not substantially similar. To establish a copyright infringement claim, Hobbs had to prove (1) ownership of a valid copyright and (2) unauthorized copying of the original portions of the work. Hobbs could show unauthorized copying  by  proving (a) the defendants had an opportunity to copy the work and (b) the two works were substantially similar. The parties agreed for purposes of the motion that Hobbs owned a valid copyright for “Natasha” and that they had an opportunity to copy it so substantial similarity was the only issue.

Hobbs argued that “Nikita” appropriated the unique selection, arrangement, and combination of certain elements in“Natasha,”namely:

  1. A theme of impossible love between a Western man and a Communist woman during the Cold War;
  2. References to events that never happened;
  3. Descriptions of the beloved’s light eyes;
  4. References to written correspondence to the beloved;
  5. Repetition of the beloved’s name, the word “never,” the phrase “to hold you,” the phrase “I need you,” and some form of the phrase “you will never know”; and
  6. A title that is a one-word, phonetically-similar title consisting of a three-syllable female Russian name, both beginning with the letter “N”and ending with the letter “A.”

However, as the court noted, the Copyright Act does not protect general ideas, only the particular expression of an idea. In addition, the Act does not protect“incidents, characters or settings are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic. After reviewing the songs’ lyrics, the court concluded that the first four allegedly similar elements are expressed differently in the two songs and that the remaining two elements are “rudimentary, commonplace, standard, or unavoidable in love songs.”

Although each song tells of an impossible romance between a Western man and a Communist woman, they express different stories of impossible romance due to conflict. “Natasha” is the story of two people who are briefly intimate but forced to part because of the Iron Curtain. In contrast, “Nikita” is the story of a man who sees from afar and never gets to meet the woman of his desire because she is on the other side of a “line” held in by “guns and gates” (possibly a reference to the Berlin Wall). The way each song expresses unfulfilled desires or events that never occur is different. Although both songs refer to a woman with light eyes, the eyes are also described differently. The correspondence referred to in the songs is also different. Accordingly, Hobbs could not rely on a “unique selection, arrangement, and combination of” dissimilar expressions.

The Seventh Circuit also found that although the last two allegedly similar elements were expressed in similar ways in both songs they were standard fare in popular love songs and, therefore, could not be a basis for finding that the songs were substantially similar. Therefore, as a matter of law, the songs do not share enough unique features to support a copyright infringement claim.

This case is a good example of the difference between unprotected ideas and the protected expression of those ideas, a basic concept in copyright law.

Source: Guy Hobbs v. Elton John, No 12-3652, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, July 17, 2013