What Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, and Lady Gaga May Have In Common

This post is guest authored by Bronte Story, a rising third-year law student at SMU Dedman School of Law. Bronte is one of our summer legal interns here at Maddrey PLLC, and we are happy to present this article. As always, I have reviewed this post for its legal and factual conclusions – Madeleine Shroyer
A jury recently ruled in favor of a Christian rap artist in a lawsuit against Katy Perry and her songwriting team. The Christian rapper, Marcus Gray, aka Flame, sued Perry in the US District Court of California for infringing his copyrighted work “Joyful Noise” when Perry released her song “Dark Horse,” which shared a strong resemblance to Gray’s work.
The jury determined the 2008 release of “Joyful Noise” was likely heard by Perry or her writing team before her release of “Dark Horse” in 2013. The jury also found that the Christian song was “sufficiently similar” to Perry’s, enough so to constitute copyright infringement.
The biggest arguments against Perry were the accessibility of Gray’s song and the fact that the songs shared a musical phrase consisting of “four C notes followed by two B notes.” However, Perry and her team testified they had never heard the 2008 track and refuted the common note argument claiming that is was a common musical phrase.
The court determined Perry, her label and her songwriting team now have to pay $2.7 million in damages to Gray. Perry and her legal team are planning to fight back against the jury ruling and the damages determination. Perry’s lawyer, Christine Lepera, was quoted saying that the “writers of ‘Dark Horse’ consider this a travesty of justice.”
The decision in Perry may have deep implications in the music industry by creating copyright precedent that highly favors the person claiming infringement. This may keep other big stars and their creative teams on their toes when making decisions in the music production stage. If short phrases and musical patterns are used against musicians in future infringement suits, popstars are likely to be targeted in future infringement suits as well.
Most recently, popstar/actress Lady Gaga has had also been hit with the threat of litigation. Although no suit has been filed, Gaga is being threatened with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit for allegedly infringing on the song “Almost” by Steve Ronsen when Gaga released the Oscar-winning song “Shallow” from the most recent “A Star is Born” film. Ronsen’s statement is based primarily on the use of a few shared notes – G,A,B– that correspond with the hook of “Shallow.”
Gaga has already hired attorney Orin Snyder and is proactively on the move to get this claim shut down. Ronsen’s legal team produced a musicologist report that stated the songs had multiple similarities, while Gaga has publicly come out professing her story of how the song was organically created between herself, the producer Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt in 2016.
If any given person were to listen to both “Almost” and “Shallow,” it seems they aren’t nearly as similar sounding to each other as the songs “Joyful Noise” and “Dark Horse” may sound. However, that doesn’t mean Ronsen lacks a legal claim. Time will tell to see if this dispute settles or if Gaga will face a similar fate to Perry.
These claims are only the most recent copyright infringement claims big music stars have encountered. For example, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were forced to pay a $7.3 million in 2015 to Marvin Gaye’s estate for an infringement claim of their song “Blurred Lines.” The “Blurred Lines” creators were not the only ones who faced litigation from Gaye’s estate either. Ed Sheeran encountered infringement claims from the estate in 2018 for his 2014 hit song “Thinking Out Loud.”
Not only have there been multiple suits against major popstars, but there are likely to be many more following the holding in Perry’s case and Gaga’s new litigation storm she possibly faces. As more claimants receive compensation and judgment on their side of the litigation front, it is likely more popstars will confront undesirable outcomes in these situations. This may be beneficial for the underdog musicians seeking justice for legitimate infringement claims. On the other hand, holdings that reveal infringement for the mere use of a few notes or cord progressions may have negative effects on the precedent and principles of copyright law that should be inspiring, not discouraging, creativity.

About the Author
Thomas Maddrey is the founder and managing partner of Maddrey PLLC. Prior to attending law school, Tom was a commercial photographer, entrepreneur, and gallery owner. His work in both the arts and as a business owner has given him a unique perspective on the needs of owners and creatives, as well as an understanding of the obstacles they face.
Learn more about Thomas Maddrey HERE.