7th Circuit Court Clears Kanye West Of 'Stolen Lyrics' Claim

from the this-will-only-make-West's-'Stronger'-stronger dept

The rap game used to be about getting yours at all costs. It still is, in a way. The definition of "all costs," however, has changed from "dangling reluctant business partners out the window" and "late night drive-bys" to "retaining a lawyer." From legal bottle fights over a few seconds worth of melody to litigious shootouts over mixtapes, the road to riches tends to favor rappers who talk up their criminal exploits but maintain their IP status quo in various courtrooms.

Of course, not every attempt to monetize perceived slights works out. Rap artist Vince P. (Peters) was just handed the unwelcome news that, in a country of 300 million people, it's entirely possible to arrive at the same lyrical conclusion independently, especially if both parties are somewhat familiar with famous German philosophers.

In 2010, Vince P. filed a lawsuit accusing Kanye West of ripping off his track "Stronger." Vince claimed West had access to his 2006 track via business manager (and mutual acquaintance) John Monopoly. (He also claims West had access to this track through Myspace, to give you some idea how far back this complaint goes.) According to Peters, his CD was played at a meeting with Monopoly, who then promised he'd handle the executive producer gig if he could get Interscope to fund the album.

Needless to say, said album failed to be funded and to add perceived insult to non-injury, West's track, also titled "Stronger," was released in 2007 and went straight to the top of the charts.

P. cited many similarities between the two tracks, including the presence of the word "wronger" and a reference to Kate Moss, who is not normally a lyrical staple within the confines of the genre. Too many coincidences to be non-infringing? U.S. Judge Virginia Kendall disagreed:
In addition to their titles, U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall found that the songs also have similar rhyme schemes and contain references to British model Kate Moss. They also hearken to Friedrich Nietzsche's maxim, "what does not kill me, makes me stronger."

But even assuming West had access to Peters' recording, the songs were too different to support a copyright-infringement claim, Kendall found.
The 7th Circuit Court backed up Kendall's decision:
"Vince P has adequately pleaded that West had an opportunity to copy his song, but that does not help him prove similarity," Judge Diane Wood wrote for a three-member panel. "Vince P must show that West actually copied his song by pointing to similarities between the two works. We are not persuaded that the similarities alleged by Vince P rise to the level of copyright infringement."
Wood noted that the mutual presence of a famous Nietzsche quote might seem to indicate infringement but, as West's team pointed out (paraphrased): "Who the hell hasn't used that quote?"
"Although the fact that both songs quote from a 19th century German philosopher might, at first blush, seem to be an unusual coincidence, West correctly notes that the aphorism has been repeatedly invoked in song lyrics over the past century," she added.

In fact, pop singer Kelly Clarkson also made the Billboard Hot 100 chart with her song, "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," the decision states.
Yes. Kelly Clarkson. That's officially everybody.

The court also found the "unique" appearance of Kate Moss in both lyrics to be nothing more than "shorthand for beauty" and noted that copyright protects only the actual expression, not methods of expression. With most of the common aspects of the two songs being, well, common, the court found in favor of West, delivering this final coup de grace:
These songs are separated by much more than 'small cosmetic differences,' ... rather, they share only small cosmetic similarities," she added.
The music business is highly competitive, but trying to turn a "Hey, THAT was my idea!" moment into a potential payout via the legal system seems to be a bit like attempting to monetize failure. There are better ways to handle this. Competing artists have recognized that many ideas are not unique and that the expression of those ideas may inadvertently take on the appearance of infringement.

The legal system may not exactly welcome this sort of behavior, but those whose entire careers are the legal system have certainly made the most of these situations. In all fairness, Vince P.'s case is one of the more credible claims I've read, but the fact remains that if you use a variety of common symbols and phrasing in your work, the harder it's going to be prove infringement. Suing to "replace" income that was never yours to "lose" is no way to move artistic expression forward. It's a great way to stagnate, and given free reign, it's a great way to curb the expression of others. 

Filed Under: copyright, friedrich nietzsche, kanye west, kate moss, kelly clarkson, stronger, vince p.

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  1. icon
    blaktron (profile), 24 Aug 2012 @ 1:36pm

    Headline should read "Kanye West steals tune from Daft Punk. Unknown rapper not associated with anyone sues."

    Also, Daft Punk loved the fact that Kanye sampled them, because they arent douches.

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