Can My Co-Writer Copy Our Joint Work?
Thanks to a recent legal battle between Melissa Jefferson (aka Lizzo) and several other songwriters, a rarely explored topic has been brought to the forefront: Can a co-writer copy a jointly written work and repurpose it into their own song?
Guest post by Stephen Carlisle of NOVA Southeastern University
This is a topic that does not get analyzed very often, and few Courts have taken up the subject. But the case of Jefferson v. Raisen has brought the issue to the forefront, in a battle over who are the writers of the Grammy winning hit “Truth Hurts.”
On one side is Melissa Jefferson, professionally known as “Lizzo.” She claims to be one of the writers of the song “Truth Hurts.” She has sued songwriters Justin Raisen and others for declaratory decree that they are not co-writers of “Truth Hurts.” For their side, the Raisen parties claim that they wrote a song titled “Healthy” with Lizzo, and that elements of “Healthy” were copied in “Truth Hurts.” 1
According to Ashley Cullins at The Hollywood Reporter-Esq.:
“[Lizzo] maintains the only significant thing to come out of that session was the line “I just did a DNA test turns out I’m a hundred percent that bitch” which was inspired by a viral tweet that another songwriter present (Jesse Saint John Geller, who isn’t part of the litigation) brought up to the group. After news of the dispute broke, Lizzo ripped the brothers for claiming they helped her write the song, but gave the woman who wrote that tweet songwriting credit.” 2
The Defendants, angered by this public rebuke, set up a songwriting challenge with the performance rights organization ASCAP. 3
But according to the Judge, none of the allegations of copying matter. She rules that even if Lizzo did copy elements of “Healthy” into “Truth Hurts,” this does not make the Defendants co-authors of “Truth Hurts.”
“[A]s a matter of law, a joint author of one copyrightable work does not automatically gain ownership of a derivative work in which the joint author had no hand in creating.” Citing to the 9th Circuit case of Ashton-Tate Corp. v. Ross. 4
However, the facts of Ashton-Tate are a bit different than presented here. Their two computer programmers worked on a single program, but on disparate parts: one created the user interface while the other created the “computational component.” 5 In the case of “Truth Hurts,” numerous parties were working on a solitary work together.
Thus, the Defendants point to the case of Marizio v. Goldsmith, 6 where two writers worked together on a single manuscript. There, the Court found that meant that one author could not deny the contribution of the other, if incorporated into the final product. 7 The first problem for the Defendants is that Ashton-Tate is from the 9th Circuit and binding precedent on the trial Court. The Goldsmith case, coming from the Southern District of New York, is not binding on the trial Court.
The next problem for the Defendants is one of the facts pled in the counter-claim. They never contended that they were part of the writing process for “Truth Hurts.” They contended they helped write a stand-alone song “Healthy,” which was fully completed. Then, it is contended that parts of “Healthy” were incorporated into “Truth Hurts” without their involvement. 8
This makes “Truth Hurts” a derivative work of “Healthy.” And that fact, according to the Judge, does not confer ownership.
“As matter of law, even if Counterclaimants are co-authors of Healthy, they have not alleged an ownership interest in Truth Hurts, which they claim is a derivative work. On that basis alone, the Truth Hurts Claims fail.” 9
The Judge dismisses the case, but leaves the door open for an amended counterclaim. 10
This ruling is derived from the facet of copyright law that states that one author is incapable of infringing on the rights of a co-author. 11 But this does not mean that the Counter-claimants are completely out of luck. The trial court quotes this language from the Ashton-Tate decision:
“[A]n author does not acquire an authorship interest in a derivative work that utilizes part of the joint work [but] that author may be entitled to compensation for the use of the original joint work.” 12
So, it still remains the burden of proof of the Counter-claimants that some elements of “Healthy” made it into “Truth Hurts.” Though, remember the one element of “Truth Hurts” that appears in both songs “I just did a DNA test turns out I’m 100% that bitch” was not created by any of the counter-claimants.
- Jefferson v. Raisen Case CV 19-9107-DMG (MAAx) United States District court for the Central District of California at 1. There currently is no WestLaw citation ↩
- “Truth Hurts” Suit Against Lizzo Dismissed By Judge ↩
- Jefferson v. Raisen at 2 ↩
- 916 F.2d 516 (9th Circuit Court of Appeals (1990) ↩
- Jefferson v. Raisen at 4 ↩
- 84 F.Supp 2d 455 (SDNY) ↩
- Jefferson v. Raisen at 5 ↩
- Id. ↩
- Id. at 6 ↩
- Id. at 7 ↩
- See e.g. Who Owns The Movies? Seth F. Gorman UCLA Entertainment Law Review 7 (1) 1990 at 2 ↩
- 916 F.2d 516 (9th Circuit Court of Appeals (1990) at 523 ↩