What Do Rap, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Kate Moss Have In Common?
By Bryan Russell
Apparently not much . . . or at least, not enough to constitute copyright infringement. Vincent Peters, “professionally known As Vince P,” sued Kanye West for copyright infringement of his song Stronger. Vince P v. West, No. 10 C 3951, slip op. at 1 (7th Cir. Aug. 20, 2012). On August 20, 2012, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Vince P’s infringement suit for failure to state a claim under FRCP 12(b)(6).
Kanye West’s Stronger centers on Friedrich Nietzsche’s well-known aphorism “what does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Id. at 1. The lyrics reference Kate Moss and follow a general end-rhyme scheme common to rap music. Id. at 12-13. The song became West’s third track to top Billboards Top 100 list and was performed at the 50th Grammy Awards. Prior to the release and subsequent success of Kanye’s Stronger, however, Vince P wrote his own song titled Stronger.
The Court noted that “Vince P describes himself in the complaint as an up-and-coming hip-hop artist and songwriter.” Interscope Records offered to produce Vince P’s first album, but only if he found a qualified executive producer. Vince P and his song Stronger then caught the attention of John Monopoly—a qualified executive producer and “close friend and business manager to Kanye West.” Impressed with Vince P, Monopoly agreed to be his executive producer so long as Vince P was funded by a record label. The funding fell through, Vince P and Monopoly did not work together, and months later Kanye West released his own Stronger. Based on his belief that Monopoly had shared his work with West and several “suspicious similarities to his song,” Vince P sued West for copyright infringement.
The Seventh Circuit held that Vince P failed to plead sufficient similarities as a matter of law. This holding hinged on whether West had actually “‘copy[ied] constituent elements of the work that are original.’” (citing Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 361 (1991). Whether copying took place is often a fact intensive inquiry. And in wading through these factual quagmires, courts may need to distinguish or clarify precedent. But instead of splitting hairs, the Seventh Circuit recognized that courts vary vastly in their treatment of access, substantial similarity, and appropriation. Recognizing these differences in methodology, however, the Seventh Circuit found and clearly explained shared, basic principles: “opportunity to copy the original . . . and that the two works share enough unique features.”
As complex and nuanced as intellectual property law can be, the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning in this case provides an appreciated reminder of the importance of basic principles.