This week a Los Angeles jury in the U.S. District Court in the Central District of California found that Katy Perry’s 2013 hit “Dark Horse” infringed the copyright of a 2008 Christian rap song “Joyful Noise.” At issue were not the words of “Dark Horse,” but rather the sounds of the beat and the instrumental line of “Joyful Noise.” Christian Rapper Marcus Gray, known as “Flame’s” along with the co-authors of the song “Joyful Noise” (Plaintiffs) brought the case against Katy Perry and her team, including Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Max Martin, Capitol Records, and others involved with the writing, production, and distribution of the song (Defendants).
To bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement, a plaintiff must have first obtained a U.S. Copyright registration. Copyright infringement requires that a plaintiff owned a valid copyright and a defendant copied constituent elements of the work that are original. In cases of no direct proof of copying, a plaintiff may establish copying by demonstrating that the defendant had access to plaintiff's work and that the plaintiff's and defendant's works are substantially similar.
Even though the song was completed in 2007 and published in 2008, the joint authors of the Christian rap song “Joyful Noise” obtained a registration of a U.S. Copyright in 2014 for both the lyrics and the music of the song. Subsequent to obtaining the copyright registration, the Plaintiffs brought the lawsuit in federal court in 2014. To establish that the Defendants had access to their song “Joyful Noise,” the Plaintiffs offered evidence that their song was widely available on streaming services, and therefore could have been heard by the Defendants.
In response, Defendants put on testimonial evidence that they did not access the song “Joyful Noise” before producing the song. At trial, Katy Perry testified that though she began her career as a Christian artist, she does not listen to Christian music now, and had not listened to “Joyful Noise” before the lawsuit. During closing arguments, Perry’s Attorney argued that the Plaintiffs were “trying to own basic building blocks of music, the alphabet of music that should be available to everyone.”
At the end of closing arguments, the jury listened to both songs played back-to-back in their entirety to determine whether the works were substantially similar. On Monday, the nine-person jury found that there were substantial similarities between the original expression in the musical compositions of “Dark Horse” and “Joyful Noise,” and that “Dark Horse” copied “Joyful Noise.”
Now the case will proceed to the next stage to determine the monetary damages to be awarded to the Plaintiffs. At trial, evidence was submitted to show that the song “Dark Horse” spent four weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014, has millions of plays on YouTube and Spotify, and was included on Perry’s Grammy nominated album, “Prism.”
This case follows another high-profile copyright infringement case involving a top hit. In 2015, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’s 2013 hit "Blurred Lines” was found to infringe the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song, "Got to Give It Up.” In 2018, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the imposition of a permanent 50% royalty rate and the award of over five million dollars to Marvin Gaye’s estate.