Elton John Didn't Copy Man's Cold War Love Ballad: 7th Cir. - Intellectual Property Law - U.S. Seventh Circuit
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Elton John Didn't Copy Man's Cold War Love Ballad: 7th Cir.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court's decision to "12(b)(6)" a man's claim that pop star Elton John stole his lyrics for a love song.

Guy Hobbs, the allegedly wronged songrwiter, claimed his lyrics referenced the Cold War and a Communist woman with a name starting with "N."

Hobbs sued Elton John in federal court in Illinois, alleging Elton's 1985 song "Nikita" (which was written by lyricist Bernie Taupin) infringed on a song Hobbs wrote called "Natasha."

Nikita = Natasha?

Hobbs submitted "Natasha" to the same publishing company a couple years prior to "Nikita." Hobbs claimed his song, copyrighted in the United Kingdom, was based on his short rendezvous with a Russian woman he met while working as a cruise ship photographer.

Hobbs identified the following allegedly similar elements that, in his humble opinion, amounted to infringement:

  1. A theme of impossible love between a Western man and a Communist woman during the Cold War;
  2. References to events that never happened;
  3. Descriptions of the beloved's light eyes;
  4. References to written correspondence to the beloved;
  5. Repetition of the beloved's name, the word "never," the phrase "to hold you," the phrase "I need you," and some form of the phrase "you will never know"; and
  6. A title which is a one-word, phonetically-similar title consisting of a three-syllable female Russian name, both beginning with the letter "N" and ending with the letter "A."

Nikita ≠ Natasha

Ultimately, the court held that Hobbs failed to state a claim for copyright infringement because the songs weren't substantially similar. (Sidenote: If you want to hear substantially similar songs, listen to two Nickelback songs simultaneously. No really, it's a problem.)

The appeals court agreed with the lower court that "Natasha" and "Nikita" simply "tell different stories."

Hobbs' "Natasha" tells the real-life story of a romantic encounter between a man from the UK and a woman from Ukraine, which ends prematurely because the woman "must sail away," the court explained.

By contrast, Elton John's "Nikita" tells the tale of man who sees and loves a woman from afar. But that love can never find physical expression because the two are separated by "guns and gates."

Be Original

Hobbs's argument reminds us that the Copyright Act doesn't protect general ideas or scènes à faire -- that is, commonplace incidents, characters or settings that are indispensable to a given topic.

In this case, the standard topic is that of "unrequited love," otherwise known as the bane of pop music.

The Seventh Circuit never got around to evaluating Hobbs' argument that a unique selection, arrangement, and combination of individually unprotectable elements in a song can support a copyright infringement claim.

Which do you think was worse for Hobbs: Finding out there was no copyright infringement or finding out that he's unoriginal?

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