Lawsuit Over Lyrics in Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” Is Dismissed

From a New York Times story by Ben Sisario headlined “Lawsuit Over Lyrics in Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ Is Dismissed”:

Weeks before a trial to determine whether Taylor Swift stole lyrics in her hit song “Shake It Off,” a judge dismissed the case after a joint request by lawyers for Swift and the songwriters who accused her of copyright infringement.

The case, which was originally filed five years ago, would have been another blockbuster legal hearing for the music industry, after similar lawsuits involving Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.”

Those cases raised questions about just which aspects of music are properly protected by copyright, and which remain part of the public domain, available to any creator. The “Blurred Lines” case concerned genre, while the “Dark Horse” case — and another involving Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” — had to do with commonplace musical elements, like chord progressions and melodic accompaniments.

Swift’s case involved only words, not music, and drew commentary from legal experts over how such questions apply to lyrics.

The lawsuit was filed by Sean Hall and Nathan Butler, the songwriters behind “Playas Gon’ Play,” a 2000 track by the R&B group 3LW that contains the lines “Playas, they gonna play/And haters, they gonna hate.” They accused Swift of using those lines without permission or credit on “Shake It Off,” which was released in 2014 and became one of Swift’s defining hits, notching four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.

“Shake It Off,” written by Swift and the producers Max Martin and Shellback — who were also defendants in the case, along with the record companies and music publishers associated with the track — features a chorus that her fans can chant by heart:

’Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
Shake it off, shake it off

Five months after the case was filed, it was dismissed by a judge who said that the lyrics in question were “short phrases that lack the modicum of originality and creativity required for copyright protection.” That judge, Michael W. Fitzgerald of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, opined further about the lyrical description of players playing and haters hating.

“The concept of actors acting in accordance with their essential nature is not at all creative,” Judge Fitzgerald wrote. “It is banal.”

The judge also noted the preponderance of similar phrases in earlier pop songs, like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” (“Players only love you when they’re playing”) and the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Playa Hater” (“There are two kinds of people in the world today/We have the playas, and we have the playa haters”).

But in 2019, judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the case had been decided prematurely, and sent it back to the district court, where Judge Fitzgerald dismissed the case.

As the case wended through the courts, it became a focal point in the music industry’s ongoing debate over copyright and credit.

Since 2015, when a jury found that “Blurred Lines” had infringed on the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” legal experts and music industry commentators have argued that many such cases had gone too far, and that the looming threat of litigation could harm musical creativity itself. Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay $5.3 million to Gaye’s family.

The paper trail of Swift’s case included some intriguing nuggets for fans.

Martin, the reclusive Swedish pop maestro who has also written and produced hits for Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande and the Weeknd, said he rarely goes to concerts or listens to the radio.

And in a declaration in August, Swift described the creation of “Shake It Off,” saying that the song’s lyrics “were written entirely by me.”

“In writing the lyrics, I drew partly on experiences in my life and, in particular, unrelenting public scrutiny of my personal life, ‘clickbait’ reporting, public manipulation and other forms of negative personal criticism,” she said, “which I learned I just needed to shake off and focus on my music.”

Ben Sisario covers the music industry. He has been writing for The Times since 1998.

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