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Guity v. Santos

District court grants motion to dismiss copyright infringement claims against performing artist Romeo Santos, finding plaintiff had not identified protectable elements that were allegedly infringed, and that parties’ songs in their entirety were not substantially similar. 

Nazim I. Guity, a Latin rock musician, brought claims against Anthony Santos, professionally known as Romeo Santos, alleging copyright infringement, civil conspiracy to commit copyright infringement, and a request for accounting. Guity alleged that Santos’ recording of a song titled “Eres Mia” incorporated protected elements from Guity’s recording of a song with the same title. Guity composed his version in 2011 and hired co-defendants Milton “Alcover” Restituyo and We Loud LLC to assist with the master recording. He registered a copyright for his song in 2014. Contemporaneously with and subsequent to Guity’s recording, Santos recorded his song with the co-defendants, Alcover and We Loud. Santos then worked with Sony Music Entertainment Inc. to market and commercially distribute his work.

Santos moved to dismiss, arguing that Guity’s claims failed as a matter of law because there was no substantial similarity between the two songs and therefore no copyright infringement. The court granted Santos’ motion. 

A copyright claim requires a plaintiff to plausibly allege ownership of a valid copyright, and that the defendant copied constituent, original elements of the plaintiff’s work. A plaintiff must plausibly allege that the defendant actually copied the plaintiff’s work and that a substantial similarity exists between the defendant’s work and the protectable elements of the plaintiff’s. Federal courts may resolve the question of substantial similarity as a matter of law for the purposes of a motion to dismiss by comparing the parties’ works. To dismiss a copyright complaint, a court must determine either that the similarity between the works concerns only non-copyrightable elements or that no reasonable jury could find that the works are substantially similar. The standard for substantial similarity is whether an ordinary observer, unless listening for the disparities, would be likely to overlook them and recognize the alleged copy as having been appropriated from the copyrighted work.

Copyright law protects only the original elements of a work, meaning those components that were independently created and display at least a degree of creativity. Single words or short phrases that do not display sufficient creativity are not copyrightable. Similarly, general concepts are not protectable. A song that combines and organizes non-protected lyrical phrases, notes, tempos, and themes into a unique work may be protected under copyright law. When evaluating works that have both protectable and non-protectable elements, a court’s analysis is more discerning. It must attempt to extract the non-protectable elements from consideration and ask whether the protectable elements, standing alone, are substantially similar. When applying this test, courts do not dissect the works into their separate components and compare only those elements that are in themselves copyrightable, but instead compare the contested design’s total concept and overall feel with that of the allegedly infringed work.

The court determined that Guity’s claims failed as a matter of law. The allegedly similar elements of his song were not protected or were insufficiently pled to allow for a finding of protection, and taken in their entirety, the songs were not substantially similar. Guity’s complaint listed elements such as “unique lyrical themes” and “substantially similar concept behind the song’s theme,” but the court found that these themes, such as “love and desire,” were too broad to warrant protection. Furthermore, the song’s title, “Eres Mia,” which translates to “You’re Mine,” was too short and generic to meet the required creativity threshold for copyright protection. The complaint also failed to specifically identify which of Guity’s copyright-protected elements had been infringed. Finally, because after listening to the two songs the court determined Santos’ version was a Latin bachata, while Guity’s song had more of a rock and roll feel, and because there were few actual similarities other than the title and generic lyrical themes, the court concluded the songs were not substantially similar in their entirety. 

Summary prepared by Tal Dickstein and Michael Segal