U.S. Court of Appeals Finds No Copyright Violation Where Two Songs Shared Only Characteristics Common and Essential to their Genre

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago has affirmed a ruling by the federal district court judge over a copyright lawsuit involving a song. Guy Hobbs composed a song entitled “Natasha” while working on a Russian cruise ship.  This song was registered as a copyright in the United Kingdom in 1983.  His attempts to publish the song were unsuccessful. 

A few years later, Elton John and Bernie Taupin released a song entitled “Nikita.”  “Nikita” was released through a publishing company; Hobbs had sent a copy of “Natasha”  to the same company. Hobbs believed that “Nikita” was a knock-off of his song “Natasha” and demanded compensation from John and Taupin. 

Hobbs was unsuccessful, and he filed suit in 2012 asserting copyright infringement. The U.S. District Court dismissed Hobbs’ suit for failure to state a claim;  Hobbs appealed. 

Hobbs argued that the song, “Natasha,” was a unique selection, arrangement and combination of individually unprotectable elements in a song and thus entitled to copyright protection. The U.S. Court of Appeals analyzed the lyrics in both songs.

The court of appeals cited Atari, Inc. v. N. Am. Philips Consumer Electronics Corp. for the proposition 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 indispensable to the treatment of a given topic. 

Both songs contain the idea of an impossible love affair separated by conflict; each song, however, expressed the general idea differently. The two songs told two different stories about impossible romances during the Cold War. Although both songs made reference to unfulfilled desires or events that never occurred, what mattered was the particular ways in which each song expressed such concepts and that those expressions were dissimilar. 

Unfortunately for Hobbs, the panel found that although the two songs had similarities, the likeness was commonplace and unavoidable in popular love songs. Accordingly, the panel reached the same conclusion as the federal district court judge that the songs were not substantially similar as a matter of law and therefore affirmed that trial judge’s decision dismissing the case. 

Guy Hobbs v. Elton John, No. 12-3652, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, July 17, 2013.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling business litigation and business disputes for more than 37 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Antioch, Bellwood, Elmhurst, Chicago (Lincolnwood), Schaumburg, Gurnee, Calumet City, Chicago (Hegewisch), Chicago (Lincoln Square), Hinsdale and Winnetka, Ill.

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