On a certain level, the June 18 decision from the Fourth Circuit in Copeland v. Bieber is fairly routine, with only the click-bait of pop star defendants Justin Bieber and Usher setting the case apart from any other copyright infringement case involving music. However, since this is an appellate decision, unlike the jury verdict in the Blurred Lines case which involved far more ink spilling and hand wringing, one might think there would be some precedential value here.
As we’ll see, this precedential value is somewhat limited as the Court merely reversed the granting of defendants’ motion to dismiss and remanded the case back to the trial court. However, the case does provide a primer as to what needs to be proved in a copyright infringement action involving music as well one in the limitations of trying to describe distinctions in two different songs.
Plaintiff Copeland alleges that Bieber and Usher infringed plaintiff’s song, entitled Somebody to Love in three different versions of their song, also called Somebody to Love. Absent direct proof of copying, a plaintiff must prove defendant(s) had access to his work and that the allegedly infringing work is “substantially similar” to plaintiff’s work. Defendants did not deny access to plaintiff’s song – only that their work and his were not “substantially similar.”
Here’s where the fun begins. To analyze whether there’s substantial similarity between the two works, the Court actually considers two different types of similarity: intrinsic similarity and extrinsic similarity. “Intrinsic similarity” is whether the intended audience, here the general public, taking into account all elements of the work (including non-copyrightable ones such as the song’s title or “feel”) could reasonably determine that the two songs in question are “substantially similar.”
On the other hand, “extrinsic similarity” purports to be an objective view of the original elements (and only the original elements, i.e., the copyrightable expression) in the two works. In other words, this is where two experts go to battle by picking apart specific original components of the two songs (such as the melody and lyrics) in a process the Court referred to as “analytic dissection.” (Parenthetically, despite plenty of analytic dissection by two highly qualified experts in the Blurred Lines case, the jury – and the popular press – seemed to focus far more on intrinsic, rather than extrinsic similarities.)
The Fourth Circuit undertook a de novo review as to whether a reasonable jury, taking into account the “total concept and feel” (which, again, may include both copyrightable and non-copyrightable elements), could find sufficient “intrinsic” similarity to support a finding of infringement. The Court started by listening to all four songs (plaintiff’s and the three versions of defendants’). The Court treated the three versions of defendants’ song as one: “By the unscientific intrinsic standard, the three Bieber and Usher songs are not just substantially similar to one another; they are the same.”
The Court first noted that although plaintiff’s song and defendants’ were in different genres (“the Copeland song is squarely within the R&B subgenre, while the Bieber and Usher songs would be labeled dance pop, perhaps with hints of electronic”), such differences in feel are not dispositive on the issue of substantial similarity:
For if a difference in genre were enough by itself to preclude intrinsic similarity, then nothing would prevent someone from translating, say, the Beatles’ songbook into a different genre, and then profiting from an unlicensed reggae or heavy metal version of “Hey Jude” on the ground that it is different in “concept and feel” than the original.
Fair enough. But what was the “intrinsic” similarity” the Fourth Circuit found which required reversal? The Court focused on similarities in the chorus or “hook” of both songs, which is typically the most important – and most repeated – part of any song. The Court then noted certain substantial similarities, in addition to the use of the uncopyrightable element of the title in the chorus:
It is not simply that both choruses contain the lyric “somebody to love”; it is that the lyric is delivered in what seems to be an almost identical rhythm and a strikingly similar melody. To us, it sounds as though there are a couple of points in the respective chorus melodies where the Bieber and Usher songs go up a note and the Copeland song goes down a note, or vice versa. In our view, however, a reasonable jury could find that these small variations would not prevent a member of the general public from hearing substantial similarity…. In both the Copeland song and the Bieber and Usher songs, the singing of the titular lyric is an anthemic, sing-along moment, delivered at high volume and pitch.
That’s pretty much the extent of the analysis, folks. Without the ability to hear, as the Court did, plaintiff’s and defendants’ songs side by side, how is this at all helpful? As anyone who’s clicked on my bio knows, I studied music in college, have represented composers and songwriters of various stripes and have done a fair amount of songwriting myself. And I can’t make much sense of the Court’s musical descriptions – and I doubt most other practitioners would find much guidance here, either.
In copyright cases involving visual works, courts routinely include pictures of the works in question, either directly in the text of the opinion or in an appendix. In this digital age, there’s no reason not to do the same with musical works, such as having a link to recordings on YouTube, SoundCloud, or the parties’ web sites. The Court, as the Supreme Court does with its summary syllabus, can include an appropriate disclaimer. Perhaps then these cases wouldn’t reflect the oft-quoted quip (that may have originated with Martin Mull) that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
So what’s the takeaway here? For practitioners, if there’s any similarity at all in the “hook” in two songs, especially if they both include the title phrase, a plaintiff is likely to survive a motion to dismiss. That’s a boon for litigators and a bane for pop stars. Of course, here we can expect Bieber, Usher & Co. to move for summary judgment after discovery.
And finally, it’s nice to see law clerks in a Circuit other than the Second and Ninth (and at least regarding music, the Sixth), having some fun with a high profile infringement case.