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IP/Entertainment Case Law Updates

Jefferson v. Raisen

District court dismisses claims against pop star Lizzo by three songwriters that they are co-owners of smash hit “Truth Hurts” based on their alleged contributions to earlier song “Healthy,” holding that two are distinct songs and co-authorship of one does not entitle plaintiffs to co-authorship of other, and that plaintiffs failed to allege that they co-authored “Truth Hurts” independently of “Healthy.” 

For a second—and final—time, the district court has dismissed claims by three songwriters for co-ownership in the smash hit “Truth Hurts” by pop star Lizzo, whose given name is Melissa Jefferson. In response to public statements by Justin Raisen and Jeremiah Raisen that they and Yves Rothman were owed songwriting credit for “Truth Hurts,” Lizzo filed a declaratory judgment action against the three songwriters and Heavy Duty Music Publishing, seeking a declaration that defendants have no authorship or ownership rights in the hit. In response, the Raisens and Rothman filed counterclaims in which they claimed that they were co-authors and joint owners of the song, based on allegations that Lizzo “copied substantial, significant original creative expression from ‘Healthy,’” an earlier song that they alleged they co-wrote with Lizzo during a writing and recording session. In particular, they pointed to the now-famous line “I just took a DNA test // turns out I’m 100% dat bitch,” a riff off a meme allegedly shown to Lizzo and worked into “Healthy” during the session.
 
The district court previously dismissed the counterclaims, finding that joint authorship of a prior work is insufficient to confer joint authorship of a derivative work. The songwriters filed amended counterclaims removing the allegation that Lizzo copied “Healthy” to create “Truth Hurts” and asserting instead that Lizzo “continued working and evolving ‘Healthy,’ and through that process arrived at ‘Truth Hurts’” as a finalized song. On Lizzo’s second motion to dismiss, the court again dismissed the claims.
 
The court once again found fatal to counterclaimants’ arguments the factual allegations establishing that “Healthy” was considered by both Lizzo and the songwriters to be a final product. The court also noted the irreconcilable nature of counterclaimants’ reliance on the songwriters’ musicology report asserting that certain distinctive elements in “Truth Hurts” duplicate, borrow or copy from “Healthy” and their reliance on the songwriters musicology report demonstrating that these were distinct songs. Adding conclusory allegations in the amended counterclaim that one song was an end product of the other, without more specific factual allegations, was insufficient to overcome the factual allegations showing that the two were and were intended to be distinct songs. Therefore, the court found that the general rule that joint authorship of one work does not automatically confer joint authorship of the derivative work still applied.
 
Turning to the analysis of whether the counterclaimants could claim joint ownership independent of the earlier work “Healthy,” the court held that they could not. Whether a contributor is an author for purposes of determining joint authorship is based on a three-factor test, established by the Ninth Circuit in Aalmuhammed v. Lee: (1) whether the putative author exercised control over the work, (2) whether the putative co-authors made objective manifestations of a shared intent to be co-authors, and (3) whether the audience appeal turns on the collective contributions and the share of each in its success cannot be appraised. The court determined that counterclaimants failed to adequately plead the first two factors in this case—control and intent.
 
The court first held that the counterclaimants did not adequately allege control, which is often the most important factor, because they failed to allege any facts demonstrating that they exercised any control over the creation of “Truth Hurts” independent from their contributions to “Healthy”; in fact, their allegations suggested that they had not even heard of “Truth Hurts” until after its release. Under the Ashton-Tate rule, just as joint authorship of a prior work does not confer joint authorship of a derivative work, control over a prior work does not establish control over a derivative work. The court distinguished this case from cases in which parties have sole or exclusive control over the separate and distinct constituent parts of a unitary work. Counterclaimants relied on two cases: In Reinsdorf v. Skechers, a photographer who had exclusive control over photographs had been a co-author with another company that had control over the graphic design, editing and enhancement of those photographs. Similarly, in Morrill v. Smashing Pumpkins, a band’s sole control over the musical composition in a music video made it co-authors with the filmmaker. The court held that these cases were inapposite because the counterclaimants here (unlike in those cases) did not have sole or exclusive control over their constituent contribution to “Healthy”: Lizzo could have chosen not to accept the “100%” line in “Healthy,” and in any case, counterclaimants had no control over her choice to use it in “Truth Hurts.” Although the “100%” line may be a copyrightable contribution, making a copyrightable contribution does not make the contributor a co-author. Accordingly, the control factor weighed against co-authorship.
 
Turning to the intent factor, the court held that shared participation in an earlier work does not manifest an intent to be co-authors of a later work. Each putative author “must intend to contribute to a joint work at the time his or her alleged contribution is made.” Therefore, counterclaimants’ contribution to “Healthy” and any intent as to co-authorship of that song did not operate to transfer the same intent to “Truth Hurts.” Moreover, Lizzo’s decision to credit one counterclaimant on “Truth Hurts” but not others was valid indicia of whether there was objective manifestation of a shared intent to be co-authors at the time that “Truth Hurts” was made. Indeed, counterclaimants admitted that “the fact that Saint John was deemed a co-author of ‘Truth Hurts’ for his contributions in the Raisens’ recording studio would not necessarily mean everyone in the room . . . would be co-authors.” For these reasons, the court held that the intent factor also weighed against co-authorship.
 
The court granted Lizzo’s motion to dismiss based on the counterclaimants’ reliance on the earlier, independent work as the sole basis for a claim of co-authorship of a later, independent work, and did so with prejudice because the same deficiency was apparent in the earlier counterclaims. The case will proceed on other claims and counterclaims not covered by this motion to dismiss.
 
Summary prepared by Melanie Howard and Jong-min Choi