What Counts as Copyright Infringement?

Do you ever think that all pop songs sound the same? If you have, you might not be the only one who’s had that thought. Several musicians lately have sued better known musicians, claiming their success comes, at least in part, from stealing parts from older, lesser-known songs. Lately, the musicians filing the lawsuits demanding compensation for their stolen work have been successful in court, leaving many people asking about the difference between inspiration and infringement.

The latest musician to achieve success in the courtroom is Marcus Gray, who goes by Flame in the music industry. Gray wrote a Christian rap song called “Joyful Noise,” which was released in 2008. When Katy Perry released “Dark Horse” five years later, Gray sued, claiming Perry’s song had stolen important elements of “Joyful Noise,” and that the alleged theft was a significant factor in the song’s success, which included holding the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 list for four weeks in 2014.

Perry’s attorneys argued before a federal jury in Los Angeles that the musical elements the two songs had in common with each other, such as a few notes that were repeated in a pattern, are basic elements of music, rather than intellectual property that could be protected by copyright.

Whether Perry was even aware of Gray’s song when she and her five collaborators came together to write “Dark Horse” is not entirely clear, but even if she had been aware of it, could she have used it as inspiration for her own song without going so far as to steal it? These copyright lawsuits have forced juries (and the music industry) to consider the difference between inspiration and infringement, and it’s not yet clear where that line will land.

That line can be hard to discern, even for people in the music industry, but these lawsuits force musicians and their attorneys to try to explain various musical concepts (each putting it in a light that benefits their own side) to a jury made up of people who do not work in the music industry. The members of the jury are then left to reach a decision with only the biased information they were given in the courtroom, without the benefit of professional training or experience. And the decision they make could end up costing someone millions of dollars.

In the case of “Dark Horse,” the jury decided Perry should have to pay $550,000 to Gray for infringing on his copyright; Perry’s label, Capitol Records, will have to pay almost $1.3 million, and each of her five collaborators who wrote the song with her will also have to pay tens of thousands of dollars each to Gray in order to right their alleged wrong against him. Max Martin, one of Perry’s star producers, was ordered to pay $253,000; Dr. Luke has been ordered to pay $61,000 of his personal money, while his company, Kasz Money Inc., will have to pay $189,000. Altogether, the combined payments the various defendants have been ordered to pay to Gray comes to about $2.8 million.

Katy Perry released “Dark Horse” five years later, Gray sued, claiming Perry’s song had stolen important elements of “Joyful Noise,” and that the alleged theft was a significant factor in the song’s success, which included holding the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 list for four weeks in 2014.

Perry’s attorneys argued before a federal jury in Los Angeles that the musical elements the two songs had in common with each other, such as a few notes that were repeated in a pattern, are basic elements of music, rather than intellectual property that could be protected by copyright.

Whether Perry was even aware of Gray’s song when she and her five collaborators came together to write “Dark Horse” is not entirely clear, but even if she had been aware of it, could she have used it as inspiration for her own song without going so far as to steal it? These copyright lawsuits have forced juries (and the music industry) to consider the difference between inspiration and infringement, and it’s not yet clear where that line will land.

That line can be hard to discern, even for people in the music industry, but these lawsuits force musicians and their attorneys to try to explain various musical concepts (each putting it in a light that benefits their own side) to a jury made up of people who do not work in the music industry. The members of the jury are then left to reach a decision with only the biased information they were given in the courtroom, without the benefit of professional training or experience. And the decision they make could end up costing someone millions of dollars.

In the case of “Dark Horse,” the jury decided Perry should have to pay $550,000 to Gray for infringing on his copyright; Perry’s label, Capitol Records, will have to pay almost $1.3 million, and each of her five collaborators who wrote the song with her will also have to pay tens of thousands of dollars each to Gray in order to right their alleged wrong against him. Max Martin, one of Perry’s star producers, was ordered to pay $253,000; Dr. Luke has been ordered to pay $61,000 of his personal money, while his company, Kasz Money Inc., will have to pay $189,000. Altogether, the combined payments the various defendants have been ordered to pay to Gray comes to about $2.8 million.

Super Lawyers named Chicago commercial law trial attorney Peter Lubin a Super Lawyer and Illinois business dispute attorney Patrick Austermuehle a Rising Star in the Categories of Class Action, Business Litigation, and Consumer Rights Litigation. Lubin Austermuehle’s Illinois business trial lawyers have over thirty years of experience in litigating complex copyright, trademark, trade secret, intellectual property infringement, class action, non-compete agreement, commercial defamation suits, franchise, and many different types of business and commercial litigation disputes. Our Schaumburg and Naperville business dispute lawyers, civil litigation lawyers and intellectual property attorneys handle emergency business lawsuits involving copyrights, trademarks, injunctions, and TROS, covenant not to compete, franchise, distributor and dealer wrongful termination and trade secret lawsuits and many different kinds of business disputes involving shareholders, partnerships, closely-held businesses and employee breaches of fiduciary duty. We also assist Chicago and Oak Brook area businesses and business owners who are victims of fraud. You can contact us by calling (630) 333-0333 or our toll-free number (833) 306-4933. You can also contact us online here.

Contact Information