Kanye West Dodges Allegations of Copyright Violation
Kanye West: A-list hip-hop star, among the top-selling artists of the 21st century and most awarded singers of all time…and song thief?
Not so, according to a decision by the federal 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
West was facing a lawsuit for copyright violation filed by one Vincent Peters, also known as Vince P, alleging that the rap superstar had stolen the idea for his 2007 hit “Stronger” from another song by the same name written by Peters.
Along with the title of the song, Peters’ complaint mentions that West uses a similar version of the Friedrich Nietzsche quotation, “What does not kill me makes me stronger” in his lyrics, rhymes “stronger” with “wronger” and “longer,” and includes a reference to the model Kate Moss.
However, a federal judge tossed the lawsuit last year for not meeting the standards of a copyright violation, and the appeals court recently upheld the dismissal.
“In the end we see only two songs that rhyme similar words, draw from a commonplace maxim, and analogize feminine beauty to a specific successful model,” the court’s opinion reads. “These songs are separated by much more than ‘small cosmetic differences;’ rather, they share only small cosmetic similarities. This means that Vince P’s claim for copyright infringement fails as a matter of law.”
You Didn’t Make That Up
Despite the apparent similarities in the two songs, Peters never had much of a leg to stand on when it comes to copyright infringement.
“People will look at this and say, famous singer, big corporation, they ripped off the little guy,” says Tyler T. Ochoa, an expert in copyright law and professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law. “But the fact is, he borrowed a famous quote from the public domain. The fact that more than one singer has been inspired by the quote shouldn’t lead to liability.”
Point by point, the court decision took apart Peters’ claim:
- The use of the Nietzsche quotation clearly falls within the public domain. “You didn’t make that up,” Ochoa explains. “You can only claim copyright in what is original to you.”
- Rhyming “stronger” with “wronger” and “longer” isn’t protected either, especially since the other words in the lyrics are different. “You’re allowed to use rhyming words,” says the attorney. “Copyright does not protect the method of expression, it protects the expression that you use.”
- Finally, referencing Kate Moss is also not a violation. Peters’ line reads, “Trying to get a model chick like Kate Moss,” while West sings, “You could be my black Kate Moss tonight.” Not even close to a copyright problem. “Analogies of models as shorthand for beauty is common in our society,” says Ochoa. “Using Kate Moss, who is famous in her own right, doesn’t make this a creative choice.”
Where Peters may have appeared to have a case against West was in his assertion that he had played his version of the song in 2006 for producer John Monopoly, who has worked with West. It seems reasonable that West could have heard Peters’ version and subsequently decided to write his own song based on the same quote.
However, whether Kanye was inspired by Peters’ song is irrelevant when it comes to the law. According to a 1991 Supreme Court decision, facts, ideas and things in the public domain cannot be copyrighted. “Not all copying is copyright infringement,” the law professor says.
Regardless of where West got the idea for “Stronger,” the song is original enough to beat any copyright allegations. “None of the lyrics in the verses are the same,” says Ochoa. “None of the music is alleged to be the same. So the court says, it’s not the same song. It wasn’t a copy of your song, it wasn’t a derivative work based on your song.”
Tough luck for Peters. His track was never released, while Kanye’s version of “Stronger” won a Grammy for best solo rap performance and has sold more than 4.4 million copies.