Can music copyrights go too far? This one lyric may cost $300 million

Music copyright is a treacherous sea that even the most weathered of captains can have trouble navigating through. Is it too strict?

The latest in big-name music lawsuits: Miley Cyrus is being sued for $300 million over a line in her 2013 hit ‘We Can’t Stop’. She has just lost an appeal to dismiss the lawsuit so it seems that the copyright case will go forward in court.

She is being sued by Jamaican songwriter Michael May who claims that ‘We Can’t Stop’ infringes on the copyright of his 1988 song ‘We Run Things’. In his song he sings the lyric, “We run things/Things no run we”, and in Cyrus’ track she sings, “We run things/Things don’t run we”.

U.S. Magistrate judge Robert Lehrburger recommended the dismissal be denied, saying: “Defendants’ arguments to a large extent are predicated on an incorrect assumption the the Phrase merely is a trivial adaptation of a well-known, pre-existing Jamaican saying. While that ultimately may prove to be true, the court cannot make that determination on this motion.”

Expanding on the English-Patios hybrid phrase, Lehrburger says: “May’s attorneys recognise that the phrase, at some point, became ‘commonly used’ and ‘a part of Jamaican culture’. It is not clear how far back use of the phrase of its variations go, but there is no dispute that the phrase was widely accessible from multiple sources prior to the release of We Can’t Stop in 2013.”

Whilst Lehrburger has refused to throw the case out on Cyrus’ dismissal request, he admits that a preliminary analysis of the fair-use factors strongly suggests the case will end in Miley Cyrus’ favour.

Regardless of the fact it’s likely that Cyrus will win the case it raises an issue with music copyrights over what becomes copyrighted when it is put down into a recording. If we are now copyrighting phrases, it restricts the creative freedom of lyrics. There are of course blatant infringements of copyrights with lyrics but can we put trademarks on phrases? What about a single word if it features prominently in a song?

It reminds me of a case between Radiohead and Lana Del Rey last year. Radiohead sued Lana over her track ‘Get Free’ which Radiohead’s lawyers say copied their hit ‘Creep’. The song does use the same chord structure and progression and melodically resembles the song heavily – but does that mean it’s stolen?

With the sheer number of recorded tracks out there it’s near impossible to come up with a 100% original composition which begs the question, how do we decide if something is stolen or just accidentally similar.

The sweet irony of that case was that Radiohead had already been sued over the melody of Creep. The Hollies sued them for copying their song ‘The Air That I Breathe’ and won meaning that royalties for Creep are now split with the Hollies. So where does it end?

Of course music copyrights are incredibly important to protect people’s art but the lines can so often be blurred to the point of obscurity. Copyrights are tricky to navigate at the best of times but it seems increasingly worrisome in the music industry.

What are your opinions on cases like this? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Lets have a discussion.

Writing about music, listening to music, and occasionally playing music.

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