Songwriters, producers, entertainment lawyers and other people in the music industry have reacted with disbelief at the verdict in a recent copyright lawsuit against the pop star Katy Perry. Last month, a jury found that Perry and her co-writers had infringed on the copyright of Christian rapper Flame when they wrote Perry’s 2013 hit “Dark Horse.”
The lawsuit alleged that “Dark Horse” lifts a brief, minor-key musical phrase from Flame’s song “Joyful Noise,” which was a hit on Christian radio a few years earlier. In the trial, Perry claimed she had never heard Flame’s song, and her lawyers tried to argue that the two songs were not substantially similar. The jury disagreed, and awarded Flame $550,000 in damages.
Many people in the music industry have reacted with disbelief at the verdict, arguing that the two musical phrases, while perhaps similar, are so basic that they should not be protected by copyright.
The state of copyright law in popular music has been especially shaky in recent years, ever since the Marvin Gaye estate won a lawsuit over Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ hit “Blurred Lines.” Many in the industry thought that case was wrongly decided, but then the verdict was upheld on appeal.
Now, people in the industry fear a deluge of new lawsuits in which people go after hit songs, alleging that they infringed upon earlier copyrighted songs, even if the only things they share are common tropes of popular music. Some have even suggested the rulings will lead to a “chilling effect,” in which songwriters are so afraid of litigation that they censor themselves, denying the public of what could be great music.
No one knows for sure how this situation is going to end, but all the confusion around the issue makes it more important than ever that people in the music industry seek out skilled and knowledgeable lawyers so that they can understand their rights and their legal options for protecting their work.