Pop singer Taylor Swift beat a copyright infringement lawsuit Feb. 13 when a federal trial court ruled that two short phrases in her 2014 single “Shake It Off” weren’t original or creative enough to merit protection.
Swift’s song shares only the lyrics “players gonna play” and “haters gonna hate” with 2001’s “Playas Gon’ Play"—and that wasn’t enough for a lawsuit, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California said.
The ideas of players and their playing are well-established in pop music, going back at least to Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 single “Dreams,” the court said.
The ruling shows copyright law doesn’t prevent re-use of well-known short phrases in musical compositions.
“I think it’s common for writers to scrutinize other works to see how similar they are to their own,” Robert Allen of McKool Smith, a copyright and entertainment lawyer based in Los Angeles, told Bloomberg Law. “But they have to ask themselves the second question, which is ‘Are the pieces that I’m hearing that sound like my work sufficiently creative and original to justify copyright protection?’”
Sean Hall and Nathan Butler composed “Playas Gon’ Play,” a song that includes the lyrics “Playas, they gonna play/And haters, they gonna hate.” The group 3LW recorded the song, which charted in 2001.
Swift’s “Shake It Off” contains the lyrics “‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play/And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” Hall and Butler identified no other similarities between the songs, the court said.
Short phrases are usually not protected under federal copyright law, but the court noted that there are some exceptions for “sufficiently creative” phrases. But the phrases in “Playas Gon’ Play” weren’t creative enough to qualify, the court said.
Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald issued the court’s ruling.
Gerard Fox Law PC represented Hall and Butler. The Law Offices of Peter J. Anderson APC represented Swift.
The case is Hall v. Swift, C.D. Cal., No. 17-6882, 2/13/18.