Miley Cyrus has become the latest pop star to be hit with a multi-million-dollar lawsuit for one of her songs, which reached second place on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2013. The song is “We Can’t Stop,” which Michael May, a Jamaican songwriter, alleges bears a striking similarity to his own song, “We Run Things,” a 1988 reggae track that reached No. 1 in Jamaica.
The line in question appears in “We Can’t Stop” as “We run things/things don’t run we,” which May alleges is suspiciously similar to the line “We run things/things no run we,” which appeared in “We Run Things.”
In addition to Cyrus herself, her manager, Larry Rudolph, has also been named as a defendant in the lawsuit, as have writers and producers of the song, including Timothy Thomas, Theron Thomas, and Mike Williams. RCA Records and Sony Music are also defendants in the copyright infringement lawsuit.
To support May’s allegations, the complaint points to a 2015 article in which Theron Thomas talks about how Caribbean music has influenced his own work. It further alleges that Cyrus’s song would not have seen the same success without the stolen elements of Jamaican music, specifically the language of Jamaican Patois.
The complaint is seeking $300 million in damages for the alleged copyright infringement, in addition to an injunction placed on all future sales, distribution, and performance of the song. It also alleges that May obtained copyright protection for all the elements of his song from the U.S. Copyright Offices last fall, which could explain why he’s just now filing a lawsuit over a hit song from five years ago.
While Cyrus’s song reached the second-highest spot on the Billboard charts, it’s worth noting that the top song of the same year, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” was also sued for copyright infringement by Marvin Gaye’s estate. After convincing the court that “Blurred Lines” was too similar to Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” to be coincidental, the estate won millions of dollars, plus ongoing royalties.
All this is to say that alleged copyright infringement is very common among songwriters, although the success of such lawsuits varies since the line between inspiration and outright theft can be very vague at times. No lawsuit ever has a certain outcome – only a likelihood of success for one party or the other. The outcome of music copyright infringement lawsuits can be especially precarious because the line is so blurry and the plaintiff bears the burden of explaining music composition and theory to the court in order to make their case that the song in question did, in fact, cross the line from inspiration to copyright infringement.
May appears to have a pretty strong case, or at least the complaint has done everything it can at such an early stage to point out the similarities between the songs that are allegedly too strong and too numerous to be coincidental. Not only does the line in question bear a striking similarity to a line in May’s song, but the complaint also points to similarities in themes and culture between the two songs, which might improve his chances of successfully pursuing this line of litigation.
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