A Legal Blog by Aaron | Sanders, PLLC


Has There Really Been Fallout from the Blurred Lines Case and What Can Be Done About It?

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due (or Demanded)

Last week, the Associated Press reported, “More and more, artists are giving credit” to the writers of pre-existing songs “in the wake of the ‘Blurred Lines’ case.” The main point of the article was that songwriters are taking a more cautious approach when they know they have at least been influenced by a particular song and have been giving credit to the writers of the older songs to play it safe. As evidence, the article cited the addition of the Gap Band’s “Oops Upside Your Head” to “Uptown Funk,” the addition of the massively awesome Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to the credits for Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”—completely justified, in my view—and the addition the two songwriting dudes from The Fray to the credits for The Chainsmokers’ “Closer” (a song I have never listened to until just now).

That’s hardly overwhelming evidence, particularly since at least two of the additions were really settlements of legal claims before litigation. I don’t know how the Chainsmokers dispute was resolved, but I doubt it was purely voluntary.

Songwriting credit is a big deal because it’s how songwriters get paid. Royalties for a song are divided among…

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What Two Hamburger Commercials Tell Us About Early Dismissal of Copyright Cases

Sealing in the Juices While Sealing Out the Lawsuits

It’s sadly true that many copyright cases are garbage, and obviously so, even at a glance. In many circuits, fortunately, trial courts are permitted to subject copyright claims to a kind of smell test. Before the case even really gets going, the defendant may move to dismiss the case under “Rule 12(b)(6).” With this kind of a motion, the court assumes everything in the complaint is true, and limits itself to just what is in the complaint. This rule is a kind of filter, where hopeless lawsuits can be thrown out before the parties really start spending money.

Most Rule 12(b)(6) motions fail because most lawyers can write a complaint well enough to avoid dismissal. You just have to make sure you allege facts that, if true, would have a decent chance of convincing a jury of your client’s claim. That one of your key allegations might rest on some shaky evidence is a problem for another time, so long as you have a good-faith basis that you’ll be able to prove the point.

Tests for “Substantial Similarity” Are Themselves Not Substantially Similar. How Ironic.

But in many circuits copyright claims are a bit…

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The Lines of Copyright Infringement Have Always Been Blurred

I swear the title of this post is the only time I’ll be making that pun.

The “Blurred Lines” case was actually highly unusual because of a key principle of copyright law that has not been discussed much at all: access. When the alleged infringement is “non-literal” (i.e., not word-for-word or note-for-note), you have to prove that the alleged infringer had “access” to the underlying work. This is usually very difficult to prove, because proof of access usually rests with the alleged infringer, who has little incentive to remember things correctly. But in this case, Robin Thicke told a magazine that he and Pharrell Williams not only were exposed to “Got to Give it Up,” but they had its “groove” in mind immediately before they wrote it. After that, it was just a (still difficult) matter of experts and a jury’s gut instinct, and here we are.

If this case exposes a problem, it’s that the law governing copyright infringement is so varied and inconsistently applied, and it relies to such a large extent on a jury’s gut feeling, that it’s difficult for artists to know when they’re too similar to works that they have frankly been inspired by. But it’s…

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Stay With Me on This Because Someone Won’t Back Down: Why Sam Smith Had to Settle

Different Similarities: What Does it Mean to Infringe Copyright?

Earlier this week, Sam Smith settled with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne about a copyright claim that Smith’s “Stay with Me” (a lovely, lovely song) infringed Petty and Lynne’s “Won’t Back Down” (one of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ best known songs).

 

 

I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t make the connection myself when I just casually listening to “Stay with Me” on Lightning100, even though I’m a pretty big Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers fan. Smith’s song is slower and has totally different backing vocals. The two-phrase sequence in question plays a different role in both songs. In Smith’s song, it’s the main driving hook (a simple one, which shows off his vocals), whereas in the Petty/Lynne song, it’s more of an intro to the main chorus, which allows the song to ramp up its energy pretty quickly.

But once it was suggested that Smith might have gotten the two-phrase sequence from “Won’t Back Down,” I immediately saw it. Remove the backing vocals, speed it up a bit and drop the pitch a bit, and the two sequences sound almost identical. A lot of Tom Petty fans sure noticed.

To my ear, it…

This is Tom Petty. I'm sorry I couldn't find a picture of Jeff Lynne on Creative Commons because he's equally awesome.

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A Requiem for a Lawsuit Signifying Nothing: De Minimis and Fair Use

Insert Pun Here: “Dead,” “Requiem,” “Past,” “Woody”

A lot of people breathed a huge sigh of relief when a Mississippi federal judge dismissed (at the pleadings stage) claims for copyright infringement stemming from a paraphrase of a well-known William Faulkner quote in a Woody Allen movie. Then a lot of people scratched their heads at the basis: fair use, not something like de minimis (i.e., too short to be actionable)?

The allegedly infringing quote from the movie, Midnight in Paris, is: “The past is not dead. Actually, it’s not even past. You know you said that? Faulkner, and he was right. And I met him too. I ran into him at a dinner party.”

The quote from the Faulkner novel, Requiem for a Nun, one of the Yoknapatawpha novels*: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

* The judge is clearly a much bigger fan of Faulkner than I am. I tried reading The Sound and the Fury in high school and haven’t been back since.

Faulkner’s dead, of course, but his copyrights live on, owned now by Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC (though how it came to own Faulkner’s intellectual property is not terribly well understood). Heirs are often much more…

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