It’s not every day that you see a federal judge cite Biggie, Wu-Tang, Kanye, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Neil Young in a single ruling.
But that’s what Judge Martha Pacold did Friday, when she tossed out a copyright lawsuit claiming Future ripped off his 2018 song “When I Think About It” from an earlier track by a little-known Virginia rapper. The judge ruled the accuser was essentially trying to sue over basic lyrics that are ubiquitous in hip hop.
“The thematic elements that [the accusers] address—guns, money, and jewelry—are frequently present in hip-hop and rap music,” the judge wrote. “The commonality of these themes in hop-hop and rap place [them] outside the protections of copyright law.”
To prove her point on each guns, money, and jewelry, Pacold actually pointed to specific sets of lyrics for each one: First to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Machine Gun Funk,” then to Wu-Tang Clan’s C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me), and finally to Kanye West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.”
“Where elements of a work are indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic, they receive no protection,” the judge wrote.
Lawyers for DaQuan Robinson sued Future (real name Nayvadius Wilburn) in 2021, claiming “When I Think About It” infringed Robinson’s earlier song “When U Think About It.” They claimed he had emailed a draft of his song to Future’s producer a year before the infringing song was released.
But in Friday’s decision, Pacold ruled that it did not matter whether Future had copied Robinson’s song, because the material he allegedly borrowed – even if he did so — was not covered by copyrights in the first place: “None of the elements Robinson has identified in ‘When U Think About It’ is protectable.”
Future’s song features the lyric “when I think about it,” which the lawsuit claimed infringed Robinson’s use of the lyric “when you think about it.” But the judge ruled that such a short, simple phrase could not be monopolized by any one lyricist.
“It is a fragmentary expression that is commonplace in everyday speech and ubiquitous in popular music,” Pacold wrote. She cited an earlier decision by another court that dismissed a similar lawsuit against Kanye West over his allusion the “Nietzschean aphorism” about “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” in his 2007 hit “Stronger.”
Future’s song and Robinson’s song tell similar stories about overcoming adversity, the judge said, but this basic idea is “too common a narrative to be protectable.” Adding to her earlier musical references, she cited the plot F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to prove the point.
“A story about a person proving to those around him that he is better, despite a past full of hardships is general enough that it could also describe the plot of famous works of American literature,” Pacold wrote.
Even then, the judge wasn’t quite done making artistic references. To reject another one of Robinson’s claims — that Future had copied his use of a “core lyric” to help convey his song’s overall message — she cited Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and their seminal 1970 song “Our House.”
“The core lyric, ‘our house is a very, very, very fine house,’ is used to support the entire rest of the song, which uses the house and its constituent elements as the setting for the narrator’s relationship,” Pacold wrote. “This songwriting technique is not unique to Robinson, nor mid-century Canadian-American bands that feature intricate vocal harmonies. The mere use of a ‘core lyric’ to support a song’s storyline is not a protectable element because it is a frequently utilized technique in popular songwriting.”
The ruling can be appealed to a federal appeals court. Often, judges will allow accusers like Robinson to file an updated version of their case, but Pacold refused to do so: “Amendment would be futile because the relevant songs and their lyrics cannot change.”
Neither side immediately returned requests for comment on the ruling.
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