This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings, and all the fun stuff in between. This week: Taylor Swift ends a long-running copyright case over the lyrics to “Shake It Off,” Tory Lanez heads to trial over accusations that he shot Megan Thee Stallion, Backstreet Boys member Nick Carter is accused of sexually assault, and much more.
THE BIG STORY: Taylor Swift’s Accusers Drop “Shake It Off” Case
It was the next big music copyright case – until it wasn’t.
After five long years of litigation, and with just a month to go until a scheduled trial, attorneys for Taylor Swift reached an agreement Monday with songwriters Sean Hall and Nathan Butler to end their copyright infringement lawsuit claiming the superstar stole some of the core lyrics to “Shake It Off” from an earlier song.
The terms of the agreement were not publicly released. Billboard was first to report the settlement.
Hall and Butler sued Swift way back in 2017, claiming she’d lifted the lyrics from “Playas Gon’ Play,” a 2001 song they wrote for the R&B group 3LW. In that song, the line was “playas, they gonna play, and haters, they gonna hate”; in Swift’s track, she sings, “‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” (The music itself was not in play.)
The case was a big deal, if for no other reason than that “Shake It Off” was a big deal. Released in September 2014 off of Swift’s 1989, the song debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and ultimately spent 50 weeks on the chart, making it a uniquely major hit even for one of music’s top stars.
But it was also a big deal because of the legal issues at play. Like the earlier battles over Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” the case posed fundamental questions about the limits of copyright law — about where protection ends and the public domain begins. That question was explored in regard to various musical elements in those earlier cases; the “Shake It Off” case might have offered answers in relation to lyrics.
Put simply: The words in both songs were clearly similar — everyone can see that. But were they creative or unique enough in the first place to merit giving particular songwriters a decades-long legal monopoly over them? Experts who chatted with Billboard thought the answer was no.
But we’ll never know for sure. Swift’s lawyers spent years trying to make that case, arguing that many earlier songs (1997’s “Playa Hater” by Notorious B.I.G. and 1999’s “Don’t Hate the Player” by Ice-T, among others) had used the same words. A judge initially agreed, ruling that the lyrics were not novel enough for copyright protection. But a federal appeals court later overturned that ruling, and the last substantive decision in the case was a ruling last year that the question was simply too close to call and would need to be decided by a jury.
With the “Shake It Off” case now officially in the rearview, what’s the next big music copyright case? Maybe it’s the lawsuits against Ed Sheeran over allegations that his “Thinking Out Loud” infringed Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” Or the dueling cases against Dua Lipa over her own mega-smash “Levitating.” Or maybe it’s something that hasn’t even been filed yet…
THE OTHER BIG STORY: Megan Thee Stallion Shooting Trial Begins
Tory Lanez and Los Angeles prosecutors headed to court this week to kick off a closely-watched jury trial over whether he shot Megan Thee Stallion in the foot, with a potential 22-year prison sentence looming for Lanez if convicted.
The trial, set to last for at least a week, will center on the early morning of July 12, 2020, when Stallion, Lanez and Stallion’s friend Kelsey Harris were driving in an SUV following a party at Kylie Jenner’s house. According to prosecutors, after an argument broke out, Megan got out of the vehicle and began walking away, when Lanez shouted, “Dance, bitch!” and began shooting at her feet.
Lanez (real name Daystar Peterson) has pleaded not guilty to all three charges (assault with a firearm, gun possession and discharging a firearm with gross negligence) and has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
The upcoming trial will feature testimony from a number of high-profile witnesses, including Stallion herself and Harris. Also potentially taking the stand are Jenner and Corey Gamble, Kris Jenner’s boyfriend who was allegedly at the party. Lanez might also testify, but putting a defendant on the stand is always a gamble for defense attorneys.
Billboard’s Heran Mamo will be in the building covering the trial all week, and she was there Monday (Dec. 13) when the case kicked off with opening statements. Some highlights from Day One:
-Prosecutors have assembled a formidable case. They told jurors that Harris plans to testify that “her close friend was shot by the defendant,” and that they have texts from Harris just minutes after the shooting: “Help. Tory shot meg. 911.”
-Lanez’s attorneys will present the theory that Harris may have actually been the one who discharged the gun. Lead attorney George Mgdesyan told jurors that “this case is about jealousy,” involving a love triangle between the three celebrities, and that there would be witness testimony about “a fist fight between the girls” leading up to the shooting.
Stallion herself is set to testify on Tuesday, so check back in with Billboard for Heran’s dispatch…
Other top stories this week…
NICK CARTER SUED FOR RAPE – Backstreet Boys member Nick Carter was hit with a lawsuit alleging that he raped a 17-year-old fan on his tour bus following a 2001 concert in Washington. Shannon “Shay” Ruth claims that Carter invited her onboard as she sought an autograph, gave her alcohol, and then repeatedly assaulted her — but that she didn’t report it because he told her she would “go to jail if she told anyone what happened between them.” In response to the lawsuit, Carter’s attorney called the allegations “legally meritless” and “entirely untrue,” filed by someone “manipulated into making false allegations about Nick.”
50 CENT ‘INSINUATION’ SUIT MOVES AHEAD – A federal judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit filed by 50 Cent that accuses a Miami medical spa of using an innocent photo he snapped to falsely suggest that he’d had penis enhancement surgery. In seeking to boot the case, Angela Kogan and her Perfection Plastic Surgery & MedSpa argued that 50 actually was a client and had consented to the use of the image as payment for the work he received. But the judge said such arguments were premature — and that some of the company’s other defenses were “simply wrong.”
OFT-SAMPLED, NOW INFRINGED? Roddy Ricch was sued for copyright infringement by songwriter Greg Perry, who says elements of Ricch’s chart-topping 2019 song “The Box” were lifted from a 1975 soul song called “Come On Down.” Perry says his track has become something of a mainstay sample in the world of hip-hop, featured in both Young Jeezy’s 2008 song “Wordplay” and in Yo Gotti’s 2016 song “I Remember.” But he says those earlier songs were fully licensed, unlike Ricch’s: “Other [artists] in the rap world that have chosen to copy elements of ‘Come On Down’ have done so legally and correctly,” Perry’s lawyers wrote. “Defendants chose not to.”
BORED APE LAWSUIT CLUB – Justin Bieber, Snoop Dogg, The Weeknd and dozens of other celebrities were hit with a class action alleging they were secretly paid to “misleadingly” promote NFTs like the Bored Ape Yacht Club, leaving investors with “staggering losses.” The case claims that Bored Ape parent company Yuga Labs Inc. perpetrated a “vast scheme” in which they “discreetly” paid “highly influential celebrities” to pump up the value of the NFTs (non-fungible tokens). In response to the lawsuit, Yuga called the allegations “opportunistic and parasitic” and “without merit.”
GENIUS V. GOOGLE AT SCOTUS – The Supreme Court suggested this week that it might be interested in tackling a lawsuit filed by the music database Genius against Google. The case, which claims Google illegally copied the site’s lyrics and posted them in search results, was dismissed in March. But with Genius currently asking the high court to hear the case, the justices asked the U.S. Solicitor General to file briefs “expressing the views of the United States” on whether it should do so. Genius has warned that the ruling in favor of Google threatens “a vast swath of internet businesses”; Google says that’s just “alarmist hyperbole” and the case does not deserve the high court’s time.