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The laws of music: the legal claims Swift just can’t shake off

The laws of music: the legal claims Swift just can’t shake off

Neide Lemos


Reading time: four minutes

Following her 2014 hit, "Shake it off", Taylor Swift has been accused of copyright infringement by various artists and their labels.

In February 2018, judge Michael W Fitzgerald at the United States District of the Central District of California branded the song hit as “banal”.

The judge proceeded to dismiss the copyright lawsuit against Swift. That is until December 2021, when it was announced that Swift will face trial over accusations of copyright infringement of the 3LW hit ‘Playas Gon Play'.

In this next instalment in the ‘Laws of Music’ series, I break down the basics of the copyright law that governs lyrics in the UK.

Read the first instalment on the ‘Legal impact of covid-19 on live music’.

Behind the radio plays and live performances, the more songs that are created, the higher the chances of lyrics being replicated through time.

But is it possible to copyright every possible song?

Looking at the claim for $42 million in damages by Jessie Braham with ‘Haters Gone Hate’ against Swift's "Shake it off", the Californian judge said the lyrics were popular Google search terms, the short answer is no. 

Rewind to 2020, programmer Noah Rubin and his fellow programmer and copyright lawyer Damien Riehl claimed they used an algorithm to create a catalogue of 68 billion, 8-note, 12 beat melodies in an attempt to end music copyright claims.

It clearly hasn’t worked as music claims just keep being made and it has been of no use in the courtroom. The burden is on the claimants, such as 3LW would need to prove that Swift has copied their hit lyrics ‘Playas Gon’ Play’. 

Legal considerations  

For copyright to automatically arise, the music must be original, in writing and/or recorded. It is governed by the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA). As it stands, the idea of a melody, lyrics, and the arrangement cannot be copyrighted until you realise that idea – fixed in a tangible form and even use a copyright society such as Songrite Copyright Office UK.

For Swift, a copyright claim has occurred where she has allegedly copied lyrics without permission from the copyright owner. Lyrics are an example of literary works as defined under s.3(1) of the CDPA.

Attempts to protect single words or phrases such as ‘Playas Gon’ Play’ would fail. In other words, such phrases are too general in the music industry and were in the public domain prior to the release of "Shake it off".

As there is nothing such as copyright for a song, the CDPA governs two types of music:

  1. The composition (music and lyrics) which is typically owned by the songwriter, i.e. Taylor Swift, or music publishers such as Universal Music Publishing Group and EMI Music Publishing; and
  2. The master recording (the recorded version of the composition) is usually owned by artists, i.e. Rihanna, or labels such as Warner Music Group.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, under the CDPA, literary, dramatic, musical and artists' work is owed copyright for 70 years after the authors' death (s.12(2) of the CDPA. In this case the lyricists and the songwriters, or for 70 years after the creation of the lyrics if the writer is unknown.

It can only be presumed that phrases such as Playas Gon’ Play’ will continue to be in the public domain for years to come and continue to fail the test of originality. It is worth noting that if a composer and a songwriter collaborate, they share the rights to both the music and the lyrics.

A master copyright is owed when a licence is given for the final sound recording (the master sound recording) which is valid for 50 years after the creation of the master recording. The songwriter is not owed royalties for the master copyright but receives royalties when the song is either sold or performed.

Music industry considerations

It’s clear that if the melody and lyrics are repeated in a song that it will capture the attention of a record label, possibly become Tik-Tok worthy and drive success for the musician in the music market. But what next for these famous lyrics by Swift? In the noughties, terms such as “Playas” and “Haters” had their commonplace in the music industry.

The alleged lack of originality means that such terms in the music industry are owed no copyright protection. While many modern pop, and some rock songs, sound similar, the lack of originality is not to blame. Rather modern songs are based on the repetition of lyrics, tempo, time signature and more.

Nowadays popular music sounds the same. Pop queen, Swift, is known for her repetitive, catchy songs, but what the law fails to recognise is that this is part of the song writing process. It can be said that the legal claims against Swift are nothing more than a mere strive for popularity. After all, claims brought by 3LW and Jessie Braham have triggered more music streams than it otherwise would have received post-2014.

Final thoughts

There’s no doubt that Swift’s song will continue to be susceptible to future legal claims in time to come. So, if you’re into copyright law, this will certainly be a good song to discuss when demonstrating your commercial awareness.

Read my latest instalment: ‘The laws of music: the rise of fan-crazed NFTS’.