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Could Bieb Be a Copyright Infringer?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated a district court decision dismissing a copyright infringement claim in a case involving a copyrighted song and a later recording by Justin Bieber concluding that that “their choruses are similar enough and also significant enough that a reasonable jury could find the songs intrinsically similar.” The case was remanded for further proceedings. Copeland et al. v. Bieber et al., Case No. 14-14274 (4th Cir., June 18, 2015) (Harris, J.)

The plaintiff, Devin Copeland, together with Mareio Overton created a song called “Somebody to Love” in 2008. Copeland registered a copyright for the work. In 2009, Copeland gave a copy of the song to a company that recruits artists, Sangreel Media, to promote the music. Sangreel in turn presented the song to the singer Usher. According to Copeland’s complaint, Usher was interested in having Copeland re-record the album and join Usher on tour. These plans never materialized and Copeland did not hear anything further regarding the proposed plans from Usher. Later, Usher allegedly gave the song to Justin Bieber who recorded his own version of the song (also titled “Somebody to Love”) and released it in 2010. Later, Usher and Bieber recorded yet another version of the song together.

Copeland filed suit for copyright infringement against Bieber, Usher and other associated defendants alleging that Bieber and Usher had access to the Copeland song via Sangreel and that their songs bear a striking similarity. Usher and Bieber moved to dismiss the action, arguing that no reasonable jury could find that the Copeland song and the Bieber and Usher songs were “substantially similar,” as required to support an infringement claim.

To establish a claim for copyright infringement a plaintiff must provide that it possesses a valid copyright and that the defendant copied elements of its work that are original and protectable. If there are no direct evidence of copying, the plaintiff must prove copying indirectly, with evidence showing that the defendant had access to the copyrighted work and that the purported copy is “substantially similar” to the original.

After the district court dismissed the copyright infringement claim on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, concluding that the two songs “would not ‘construe the aesthetic appeal of the songs as being similar,’” for despite some shared elements, the “mood, tone, and subject matter” of the songs differ significantly,” Copeland appealed.

The 4th Circuit, crediting the facts alleged by Copeland in his complaint for purposes of the appeal, vacated the decision, explaining that “after listening to the Copeland song and the Bieber and Usher songs as wholes, we conclude that their choruses are similar enough and also significant enough that a reasonable jury could find the songs intrinsically similar.” The court further concluded that it is the chorus that many listeners will recognize immediately on hearing in their minds when a song title is mentioned. The court therefore remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.

© 2022 McDermott Will & EmeryNational Law Review, Volume V, Number 211
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