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Justin Bieber and Copyright Law

A recent federal court decision demonstrates that even musical superstars are not beyond the reach of federal copyright law. A federal appeals court revived a lawsuit against Justin Bieber and Usher for allegedly copying a song Bieber released in 2010 “Somebody to Love.” Importantly, this decision does not mean that Bieber and Usher were found to have copied the song. Instead, the court simply found that the song was similar enough to the plaintiff’s composition that a reasonable jury could find Bieber’s Somebody to Love to be a copy. The case will continue in the trial court until a full trial or a settlement occurs.

The Underlying Dispute

The dispute that underlies the lawsuit dates back to 2009, when Devin Copeland and Mareio Overton gave a copy of their song, also called “Somebody to Love,” to a musical recruiting company. That company then showed the song to Usher. Copeland, now one of the plaintiffs in the case, alleges that Usher had originally planned to record the song with him. However, that never came to pass. Instead, the complaint asserts that Usher passed the song along to Bieber. Bieber then released his own version of Somebody to Love, and the pair later recorded another version of the song as a duet.

The Legal Issues at Play

There are a pair of legal issues that are important to understand the case, one that matters for all litigation and one that is specific to copyright law. The general issue has to do with how the appeals court managed to revive the case and where in the process the case is at. The trial court had previously dismissed the lawsuit under a rule known as 12(b)(6), also referred to as dismissal for failure to state a claim. Essentially, when a defendant cites rule 12(b)(6), they are trying to convince the court that even if everything happened exactly the way that the plaintiff says, the plaintiff still would not be entitled to any help from the court. As that suggests, it is a rarity to succeed on a 12(b)(6) motion because most people do not go through the trouble of hiring a lawyer and filing a lawsuit without a viable claim. However, in this case the trial court decided that no reasonable jury could find the two songs similar enough to find that Bieber and Usher were infringing the original copyright. The appeals court disagreed and sent the case back for further proceedings.

The copyright-specific issue in the case is the standard for judging infringement. To violate copyright law, an infringer must actually copy the original work, and there must be “substantial similarity” between the two songs. The trial court found that there was no substantial similarity based on the fact that the two songs had different “aesthetic appeals.” However, the appeals court disagreed, holding that a reasonable jury could find a substantial similarity, particularly with regard to the choruses’ rhythms and melodies.

Copyright law is complex and there are often many different legal issues in the mix. If you are involved in a copyright dispute and have a question about your rights, talk to a Florida copyright attorney at Pike & Lustig, LLP today.

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