The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that unprotectable elements of a song, when considered together, are not enough to support a claim of copyright infringement. Guy Hobbs v. Elton John, Case No. 12-3652 (7th Cir. July 17, 2013) (available here). Guy Hobbs sued Elton John for copyright infringement, alleging that John’s song “Nikita” was based upon Hobbs’ unpublished song “Natasha.” John moved to dismiss, and the lower court granted the motion. Hobbs appealed and the 7th Circuit affirmed the dismissal.
In 1982, Hobbs was romantically involved with a Russian waitress and was inspired to write a song entitled “Natasha” about a doomed romance between a man from the United Kingdom and a woman from Ukraine. In 1983, he registered his copyright for the song in the United Kingdom and sent the song to several music publishers, including Elton John’s music publisher Big Pig Music, Ltd. Hobbs was unable to publish his song. In 1985, Elton John released his song “Nikita,” wherein the singer is from “the west” and describes a love for Nikita, whom he “saw…by the wall.” Big Pig registered the copyright for “Nikita,” and listed Elton John on the registration. Hobbs asserts that he saw the lyrics of “Nikita” in 2001 and sought compensation from Elton John, believing that “Nikita” infringed on his song “Natasha.” When that failed, Hobbs sued for copyright infringement, citing to allegedly similar elements between the two songs.
Hobbs argued that a combination of these elements in “Natasha” constituted a unique expression entitled to copyright protection, and the similar elements in “Nikita” supported his claim of copyright infringement. The lower court disagreed, finding that the elements were not entitled to copyright protection when considered alone or in a combination. The lower court dismissed Hobbs’ entire action and he appealed.
On appeal, Hobbs relied solely on his “unique combination” of elements theory, arguing that the unique selection, arrangement, and combination of individually unprotectable elements in his song an be copyrightable. The 7th Circuit disagreed, finding that even when the allegedly similar elements in the songs are considered together, the songs themselves are not substantially similar, and therefore Hobbs failed to state a claim for copyright infringement. In order to establish a copyright infringement claim, Hobbs must prove (1) that he owns a valid copyright, and (2) that there was unauthorized copying of key elements of his song that were original. The second element can be proved by Hobbs showing that Elton John had an opportunity to copy “Natasha” and that “Nikita” is substantially similar to “Natasha.” Elton John admitted that Hobbs had a valid copyright in “Natasha” and that Elton had an opportunity to copy it. Thus, Elton’s motion to dismiss rested on whether the two songs were substantially similar.
Hobbs listed six similar elements between the two songs: “(1) A theme of impossible love between a Western man and a Communist woman during the Cold War; (2) References to events that never happened; (3) Descriptions of the beloved’s light eyes; (4) References to written correspondence to the beloved; (5) Repetition of the beloved’s name, the word ‘never,’ the phrase ‘to hold you,’ the phrase ‘I need you,’ and some form of the phrase ‘you will never know;’ and (6) A title which is a one-word, phonetically-similar title consisting of a three-syllable female Russian name, both beginning with the letter ‘N’ and ending with the letter ‘A.’” Hobbs, Slip Op. Pp. 10-11. However, Hobbs’ argument had two flaws. First, the Copyright Act does not protect general ideas, it only protects the specific expression of an idea. Second, the Copyright Act does not protect “incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic.” Incredible Techs., Inc. v. Virtual Techs., Inc., 400 F.3d 1007, 1012 (7th Cir. 2005). In examining the two songs, the 7th Circuit concluded that Hobbs’ first 4 alleged similarities are expressed differently in the two songs, and the remaining 2 similarities are commonplace in popular love songs.
First, Hobbs argued that both songs tell the story of a doomed romance between a Western man and a Communist woman separated by the Cold War. However, this idea is expressed differently in the songs, with each song telling a different story. In “Natasha,” the man and woman are together for a short time before they are forced apart, but in “Nikita” the two never meet. The second, third, and fourth elements reach similar results. “While it is true that ‘Natasha’ and ‘Nikita’ both contain references to unfulfilled desires or events that never occur, what matters is that the particular ways that each song expresses these concepts are dissimilar.” Hobbs, Slip Op. P. 13. For example, in “Natasha,” there is “the freedom [the woman will] never know,” while in “Nikita” the woman could “never find a warmer soul to know.” This is the same with how the songs reference the woman’s eyes and written correspondence between the lovers; while both songs have these elements, they are expressed in different ways.
The fifth and sixth elements are expressed in similar ways in both songs. “While these similar elements are present at the level of expression, they are also rudimentary, commonplace, standard, or unavoidable in popular love songs. Repetition is ubiquitous in popular music. . . And, as the district court observed, the United States Copyright Office’s Registered Works Database reveals that numerous works share the titles ‘Natasha’ and ‘Nikita.’” Hobbs, Slip Op. P. 14. Thus, even with these similarities, the songs are not substantially similar. As a result, the 7th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Hobbs’ case.