April 18, 2014

It’s the Words, Not the Ideas, that Are Copyrightable

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit dismissed a lawsuit claiming that Elton John and his songwriter partner Bernie Taupin had plagiarized their hit song “Nikita” from a song called “Natasha,” explaining that copyright law does not cover general ideas, but only the specific expression of an idea.  Guy Hobbs v. Elton John, Case No. 12-3652 (7th Cir., July 17, 2013) (Manion, J.).

Guy Hobbs composed “Natasha,” a song about a love story between a British man and a Ukrainian woman.  In 1983, Hobbs registered his copyright in the song and then sent the song to several music publishers, one of them being Elton John’s publisher, Big Pig.  However, the song was never published.  John released the Nikita song in 1985, wherein the singer from the west describes his love for a girl named Nikita, who he saw through the wall and who was on the other side of the line.  The copyright in Elton John song was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office by Big Pig.

Hobbs claimed that he first learned of the Nikita song in 2001.  He alleged that the lyrics infringed his copyright of Natasha and sought compensation from John and Taupin.  Hobbs later sued John, Taupin, and Big Pig for copyright infringement.  Hobbs claimed that his work was entitled to copyright protection because his selection and combination of the elements in Natasha constituted a “unique combination.”  Hobbs argued that the number of similar elements between the two works supported a claim for copyright infringement.

The district court held that the elements identified by Hobbs were not entitled to copyright protection when considered alone.  Hobbs had not established a “substantial similarity” between Natasha, a song about a British man and a Ukrainian woman who did meet, and John’s Nikita song describing an East German woman peering through the Berlin wall at a man she never met.  The district court also rejected Hobbs claim that the elements in the song created a unique combination that was copyrightable.  The district court held that although the theme of the two songs had some similar elements in common, the elements identified were not protectable under the Copyright Act.  Hobbs appealed.

The 7th Circuit agreed, concluding that “Natasha and Nikita simply tell different stories, and are separated by much more than small cosmetic differences.”  The 7th Circuit stated that the Copyright Act does not protect general ideas, but only the particular expression of an idea.  In addition, the Copyright Act does not protect “incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic.”  The 7th Circuit concluded that “as a matter of law Natasha and Nikita are not substantially similar because they do not share enough unique features to give rise to a breach of the duty not to copy another’s work.”

© 2014 McDermott Will & Emery

About the Author


Ulrika E. Mattsson is an associate in the law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and is based in the Firm’s Chicago office.  She focuses her practice on intellectual property litigation, counseling and prosecution.

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