Nobody Laughing Now
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Florida placed a big dent in hip-hop superstar Rick Ross’ claim against LMFAO’s chart-topping “Party Rock Anthem” (Party Rock). In 2013, the rapper had filed suit against electro-pop duo LMFAO, claiming that the lyric “Everyday I’m shufflin’” contained in Party Rock infringed the copyright in the lyric “Everyday I’m hustlin’” from Ross’ own chart-topper, “Hustlin’” (Hustlin’).
In the suit, Ross claimed that “the use of ‘Hustlin’’ in ‘Party Rock Anthem’ [was] readily apparent”, and that the phrase was “performed in a manner to sound like [his] own, and [was] an obvious attempt to capitalize on the fame and success of Hustlin’”.
While the main trial has yet to begin, in a ruling for partial summary judgment released on 15 September 2015, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams dismissed the part of Ross’ claim relating to LMFAO’s printing of the “Shufflin’” lyrics on a series of t-shirts and merchandise.
In the motion for summary judgment, the judge was asked to decide whether Ross’ three-word phrase was original enough to be copyrightable. In her decision, the judge reasoned that “Hustlin’”, as a musical composition, is protected in its entirety by copyright. However, “copyright protection does not automatically extend to every component of a copyrighted work”, and that Ross’ three-word lyric is a short, common phrase that cannot be copyrighted.
The judge opined that: “the question presented, however, is not whether the lyrics of Hustlin’, as arranged in their entirety, are subject to copyright protection…the question is whether the use of a three word phrase appearing in the musical composition, divorced from the accompanying music, modified, and subsequently printed on merchandise, constitutes an infringement of the musical composition Hustlin’. The answer, quite simply, is that it does not”.
The judge also referred to other cases where short phrases like “caught up”, “we get it poppin’”, “holla back” and “you got the right one, uh-huh”, all failed to meet the threshold for originality when divorced from the music. There was also a suggestion that Ross was not the first to come up with the lyric in question.
Judge Kathleen Williams went further, and added that even if Hustlin’s lyrics, as divorced from the music, could be copyrightable, Ross would still fail in his claim because the two works are not substantially similar. In her opinion, “the average lay observer would not confuse t-shirts bearing the phrase ‘everyday I’m shufflin’” with the musical composition Hustlin’, nor without reference to Party Rock Anthem and Hustlin’, would an average lay observer recognize the merchandise as having been appropriated from Hustlin’”.
The full text of the decision can be found here.
The suit between both artists will continue, and is pending trial on the remaining issue vis the two songs in question. LMFAO’s Stefan Kendal Gordy and Skyler Austen Gordy have been joined as defendants together with Kia Motors, which used “Party Rock Anthem” in an advertisement. It remains to be seen who will have the last laugh between the two musical heavyweights.