7th Circuit to Decide Kanye West “Stronger” Case

Originally published on November 23, 2011 on EntertainmentLitigation.com

Another aspiring songwriter guided by uninformed wishful thinking seeks to cash in against a celebrity.  In this case, plaintiff Vincent Peters sued Kanye West claiming that Kanye copied his song “Stronger” from Peters, who argued at the trial court level that Kanye gained access to the plaintiff’s song of the same name through Kanye’s manager, John Monopoly.  United States District Court Judge Virginia Kendall of the Eastern District of Illinois dismissed Peter’s claim under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim, finding that (i) the allegedly infringed elements of the plaintiff’s song were not protectable under copyright law, and (ii) an ordinary observer could not conclude that the plaintiff’s song and Kanye’s “Stronger” are substantially similar. Peters appealed the district court’s decision.  Kanye’s attorneys filed their brief in support of his position on November 18. It describes the case, in part, as follows:

Plaintiff has brought suit based upon a handful of alleged similarities between the lyrics of two songs. Plaintiff does not claim any similarity between the music of the two songs. Plaintiff concedes that the alleged lyrical similarities are unoriginal to him and, individually, unprotectable. Indeed, with the exception of one lyrical similarity (a reference to the “Supermodel” Kate Moss, which is not copyrightable), the remaining alleged similarities all concededly derive from a century-old maxim by Friedrich Nietzsche [“That which does not kill me only makes me stronger], a maxim that, as the district court found, “enjoyed a robust existence in the public domain.” Plaintiff bases his claim on the supposed copyrightability of the “combination” of these otherwise unprotectable words and phrases contained in completely different songs.

The maxim at issue originated with Nietzsche about 100 years ago and cannot, therefore, form the basis of an infringement claim by the plaintiff. Aside from being in the public domain, the phrase has appeared in other songs that predate the plaintiff’s, such as “Only God Can Judge Me” by Tupac Shakur, and a derivative appears in Metallica’s “Broken, Beat & Scarred.”

The brief is well written and reasoned, and Kanye’s position finds solid support in the case law (I’m glad to have been able to contribute two of the decisions cited in the brief ). It would be quite surprising if the Seventh Circuit does not affirm the trial court’s judgment.