Hobbs v. Elton John, No. 12-3652 (7th Cir. July 17, 2013).
Plaintiff composed a song entitled “Natasha” that was inspired by a brief love affair he had with a Russian waitress. Plaintiff tried to publish his song, but was unsuccessful. A few years later, Elton John and Bernie Taupin released a song entitled “Nikita” through a publishing company to which Plaintiff had sent a copy of “Natasha.” Believing that “Nikita” was based upon “Natasha,” Plaintiff eventually demanded compensation
from John and Taupin, and ultimately filed suit asserting a copyright infringement claim and two related state law claims. The defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim, and the district court granted the defendants’ motion. The 7th Circuit affirmed.
The Court held that Plaintiff failed to state a claim for copyright infringement because, even when the allegedly similar elements between the songs are considered in combination, the songs are not substantially similar. Defendants conceded that Plaintiff owned a valid copyright in the song and that Defendants had access to it. "Thus, the defendants can only prevail on their motion to dismiss if 'Natasha' and 'Nikita'
are not 'substantially similar' as a matter of law. That is, if as a matter of law 'Natasha' and 'Nikita' do not 'share enough unique features to give rise to a breach of the duty not to copy another’s work'." The Court found that Plaintiff's argument "flounders on two well-established principles of copyright law." First, that the Copyright Act does not protect general ideas, but only the particular expression of an idea. And second, even at the level of particular expression, 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.” A careful review of both songs’ lyrics reveals that Plaintiff's first four allegedly similar elements are expressed differently in “Natasha” and “Nikita.” And the remaining similar elements are rudimentary, commonplace, standard, or unavoidable in popular love songs. The two songs simply “tell different stories."
Because “Natasha” and “Nikita” are not “substantially similar” as a matter of law, Plaintiff's copyright infringement claim failed as a matter of law.