Victory for Sam Smith in IP lawsuit

Lindokuhle Mkhize

Lindokuhle Mkhize

11 September 20234 min read

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Sam Smith IP lawsuit

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    English singer-songwriter Sam Smith and pop sensation Normani recently secured a significant victory in a copyright infringement lawsuit against them in California.

    The legal battle revolved around their widely acclaimed track, "Dancing With a Stranger," which soared to the top of the charts and solidified their positions as exceptional musicians.

    In a ruling delivered by U.S. District Judge Wesley Hsu, Smith, Normani, and their record labels Sony and Universal Music emerged triumphant in the copyright dispute, settling allegations of infringement surrounding the song's melodic elements.

    The sensational hit

    "Dancing With a Stranger" catapulted Sam Smith and Normani to new heights of success. The electrifying collaboration between the two artists produced a mesmerizing pop anthem that resonated with audiences worldwide.

    The track's captivating melodies, heartfelt lyrics, and impeccable vocal chemistry propelled it to the top of the charts, including the coveted UK Singles Chart. The resounding success of "Dancing With a Stranger" cemented Smith and Normani's statuses as pop music icons.

    The copyright infringement lawsuit

    In March 2022, Sound and Color LLC, a music company, commenced a copyright infringement lawsuit against Sam Smith, Normani, Sony, and Universal Music. Sound and Color claimed that the melodic phrases in "Dancing With a Stranger" infringed upon the copyright of their song, "Dancing with Strangers."

    This legal dispute set the stage for a rigorous examination of melodic similarity and narrative context within the music industry.

    Clarity has been added to the matter as a result of U.S. District Judge Wesley Hsu's decision on the copyright issue involving Sam Smith, Normani, and the songwriters Jordan Vincent and Christopher Miranda.

    The judge looked closely at the melodic phrases in both songs and came to the conclusion that Smith and Normani's song's melodic phrase didn't sound remarkably similar to Vincent and Miranda's copyrighted song, “Dancing with Strangers.”

    Beyond the issue of originality and protectability, Judge Hsu's decision said that even if the melodic phrase in Vincent and Miranda's song was found to be both unique and protectable, it didn't constitute illegal appropriation in the case of Smith and Normani's song.

    Because of this crucial distinction, Smith, Normani, and the other parties were granted summary judgment.

    Judge Hsu's ruling and analytical approach

    Judge Hsu concluded that, as a matter of law, the melodic phrase in "Dancing With a Stranger" didn't substantially resemble the one featured in Sound and Color's song.

    This dismissal was unrelated to the originality and protectability of Sound and Color's melodic phrase, explicitly affirming that Smith and Normani's creation didn't unlawfully appropriate the copyrighted material.

    Melodic phrases and consideration of narrative context

    Judge Hsu's ruling underscored the importance of analyzing melodic phrases within their respective narrative contexts. Although both songs featured the melodic contour phrase "dancing with a stranger," the judge highlighted the stark divergence in themes and subject matter. "

    Dancing With a Stranger'' delved into the nuances of post-relationship heartbreak. At the same time, Sound and Color's track navigated different themes, evident in the absence of similar melodic contour narrative elements.

    Judge Hsu accentuated the need to examine melodic structures, accompanying lyrics, and narrative context to determine substantial similarity.

    The widespread use

    In further support of his ruling, Judge Hsu referenced numerous songs predating Sound and Color's 2015 release incorporating the phrase “dancing with a stranger.”

    Artists such as Kitty Wells (1957), Cyndi Lauper (1989), David Lyle Morris (1993), Annie Gallup (1996), and The Risk (2010) all used this phrase in their musical compositions. Given the song's widespread and recurring usage, Judge Hsu concluded that the song and four-word phrase was unprotectable under copyright law.

    The importance of originality and protectability

    Although the plaintiffs argued that Sound and Color's melodic phrase was original and protectable, Judge Hsu didn't delve into this aspect in his ruling. However, he acknowledged the persuasive argument made by the plaintiffs regarding the potential protection afforded to short hooks composed of fewer than ten notes and four words in copyright law.

    Nevertheless, Judge Hsu stated that even if Sound and Color's melodic phrase was deemed sufficiently original and protectable, it didn't substantially resemble the melodic phrase employed by Sam Smith and Normani.

    The impact on the music industry

    "Dancing With a Stranger" solidified Sam Smith and Normani's positions as influential figures in pop music and made waves within the entertainment industry. The song's release marked a collaborative effort between Smith and Normani, each bringing their unique style.

    Drawing upon their strengths, the English singer's introspective and emotive vocals harmonized seamlessly with Normani's captivating stage presence and dynamic sound. The infectious blend of their talents caught the attention of fans and critics alike, further propelling the track's success and contributing to the ongoing evolution of the pop music landscape.

    Protecting copyrighted works in the digital age

    In the end, the copyright infringement case involving Sam Smith, Normani, and their record companies was won by the parties involved in the chart-topping hit song “Dancing With a Stranger.”

    The melodic passages in question are not significantly identical, according to Judge Hsu's decision, which emphasizes the significance of looking at the narrative context and taking into account prior works when evaluating copyright infringement allegations.

    This legal precedent emphasizes the necessity for strong protection of copyrighted works in the digital era.

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    Lindokuhle Mkhize

    Lindokuhle Mkhize


    Lindokuhle Mkhize, a skilled creative copywriter and content lead at Trademarkia, brings a wealth of experience in driving innovation and managing teams. With previous success in starting and growing the Innovation and Marketing department at her former creative agency, Lindokuhle boasts expertise in leadership and delivering compelling content. Based in South Africa, Lindokuhle's work focuses on key themes of creativity, effective communication, and strategic marketing.