Over the last four years, Taylor Swift has battled a copyright lawsuit filed by two other songwriters. Sean Hall and Nathan Butler claimed that Swift’s 2014 hit “Shake It Off” had infringed on the lyrics of their 2001 song “Playas Gon’ Play.” In particular, Hall and Butler argued that Swift’s lines “players gonna play, play, play, play, play and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” copied from their lines “playas, they gonna play” and “haters, they gonna hate.” Swift received great acclaim for “Shake It Off,” which was one of her longest-charting singles in the Billboard Hot 100 and held the top spot there for four weeks.
A federal judge initially dismissed the copyright lawsuit, holding that the short phrases at issue were not eligible for copyright protection. Courts have held that material is copyrightable only if it has a minimal amount of originality and creativity. The judge noted that many other songs contained similar phrases, which suggested that the phrases were not original. If the phrases were not copyrightable, Swift could not be liable for infringement.
The songwriters prevailed on appeal, though. The appellate court ruled that the case should not have been dismissed because the material showed enough creativity to be copyrightable. When the case returned to the trial court, Swift asked for summary judgment. This is a pre-trial motion that asks the judge to rule in the moving party’s favor as a matter of law rather than sending the case to a jury. Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine dispute about any material fact in the case.
However, the judge denied the motion for summary judgment, finding that it was possible for the plaintiffs to persuade a jury that infringement had occurred. The judge acknowledged that the lyrics were not identical, but he felt that there were sufficient similarities to preserve a factual dispute for the jury. He noted that Swift would have a strong argument against liability at that stage, though. The case will now proceed toward a jury trial unless the parties settle.
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