By Emma Perot writing for the IP Kat
Justin Bieber and Skrillex have been accused of copyright infringement by artist Casey Dienel, aka White Hinterland. The suit probably does not come as a complete surprise to the duo, as Dienel claimed that she contacted Bieber’s lawyers when “Sorry” was initially released, but did not receive a response.
Dienel alleged that Bieber and Skrillex, whose 2015 hit single ‘Sorry’ has received 1.4 billion hits on YouTube, copied her vocal loop from her 2014 song ‘Ring the Bell’. The allegedly copied segment can be heard in the first five seconds of each song. Skrillex and Bieber have both denied the claims on their Twitter accounts.
If this claim goes to trial, it could be the 2016 edition of the infamous “Blurred Lines” dispute, which resulted in Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke being ordered to pay Marvin Gaye’s family $7.4 million USD for infringing copyright in his 1977 hit ‘Got to give it up’ (discussed on IPKat here).
After the ‘Blurred lines’ case, this Kat would be surprised if Bieber’s lawyers took this case to trial, but let’s consider what Dienel would need to prove to win her claim for infringement:
For a claim in copyright infringement to succeed, copyright must subsist in the earlier work. Copyright subsists in the US if the work is original according to the standard set out in Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991); a modicum of creativity.
The later work must be substantially similar to the earlier work for a finding of copyright infringement. Determining substantial similarity “includes a qualitative as well as a quantitative aspect.” (Abrams, §14.16). This Kat played both songs at the same time and thought there was undeniable overlap between the two sounds. Dienel’ loop has four beats whereas Bieber and Skrillex’s has five, but it is the similarities rather than the differences which have to be compared. Even if the works are substantially similar, copyright law will not protect a work if the later work was independently created (Abrams, §14.7). Skrillex tweeted a video showing how the loop in question was produced, demonstrating his stance on this issue.
Proof of copying can be direct or indirect. Direct proof could be an admission of copying by the defendants or testimony of a direct observer of the copying. Dienel is unlikely to have direct proof so she would have to rely on indirect proof. This would include the availability of the work to the accused copier and the similarities between the two works.
Daniel’s song is available on YouTube and Spotify so it would have been easily accessible by Bieber and Skrillex. As for the similarity, US DJ Diplo weighed in on the matter when questioned by TMZ; “I thought they sampled it…but I thought they cleared it. Yea, seems pretty easy to do.”
Significance of the claim
Musical copyright claims such as this one skate a thin line between protecting the creations of artists and chilling future creation. It is difficult to determine when a song has copied rather than been inspired as artists are inevitably influenced by earlier works. The video Skrillex posted indicates that a similar sound or technique was used in producing the song, rather than taking a direct sample from ‘Ring the Bell’. It might be the case that Bieber and Skrillex were inspired by the earlier sound and decided to create their own version to incorporate into ‘Sorry’, using different pitch, timing and placement.
In this instance, whether Bieber was inspired or unlawfully imitated Dienel’s vocal loop, ‘Ring the Bell’ pales in comparison to the global success that ‘Sorry’ has achieved. It’s not surprising that Dienel would feel slighted and pursue a claim to reap the rewards that her song didn’t produce.