A federal judge on Thursday denied a request by Taylor Swift to throw out a copyright infringement suit accusing her of stealing lyrics in her 2014 hit song “Shake It Off” and ordered that the case could go to trial.
The lawsuit was filed by Sean Hall and Nathan Butler, writers of the 2001 song “Playas Gon’ Play” by R&B group 3LW. A trial would test whether parts of Swift’s song, including versions of the phrases “players gonna play” and “haters gonna hate,” are similar enough to the earlier song to meet the legal threshold for copyright infringement.
Judge Michael Fitzgerald, of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, denied Swift’s request for a summary judgment Thursday. The case will go to trial unless a settlement is reached.
In the decision, Fitzgerald said Swift’s legal team had made “a strong closing argument” but had failed to show that the issues in the case could not be resolved by a jury.
Other defendants in the case include producers Max Martin and Shellback; music publishers Sony and Kobalt; Big Machine Label Group; and Universal Music Group.
Lawyers for Swift and the other defendants did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Marina Bogorad, a lawyer for the songwriters, said in an email, “Our clients are extremely satisfied with this decision, especially because it reinforces the notion that their unique self-expression based on the deeply rooted cultural heritage cannot be simply snatched away without proper attribution.”
The songwriters first filed the lawsuit against Swift in September 2017. Fitzgerald dismissed the case in 2018, but it was returned to his court by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
The lyrics under review in Swift’s song include “Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play/ And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” These lines are being tested against “Playas, they gon’ play/ And haters, they gonna hate,” from the song by 3LW, an all-female R&B trio popular in the early 2000s.
In his 2018 original ruling, the judge said the lyrics under debate were “too brief, unoriginal, and uncreative” to be protected under the Copyright Act.
“In the early 2000s, popular culture was adequately suffused with the concepts of players and haters to render the phrases ‘playas … gonna play’ or ‘haters … gonna hate’ standing on their own, no more creative than ‘runners gonna run,’ ‘drummers gonna drum,’ or ‘swimmers gonna swim,’” he wrote in his February 2018 order.
George Howard, a professor of music business management at Berklee College of Music, described the system for testing music copyright as imperfect and said that, in many cases, labels and publishers will settle if they think there is any chance they could lose a case.
Several high-profile cases have tested the music copyright standards in court in recent years, in some cases creating concern that artists will face a flood of lawsuits.
After a federal jury concluded that Robin Thicke’s 2013 song “Blurred Lines” had copied elements of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” musicians and record labels warned that the precedent could have a chilling effect on artists.
But in 2020, some felt the tide was changing after Led Zeppelin prevailed in a copyright suit in October of that year. Months before, a federal judge had vacated an earlier decision that Katy Perry’s hit “Dark Horse” had infringed on the copyright of a Christian rap song.