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Court dismisses plagiarism claims made against The Weeknd

By | Published on Friday 24 July 2020

The Weeknd

A judge has dismissed the lawsuit pursued by three British songwriters against The Weeknd in relation to his track ‘A Lonely Night’. The judge concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate how The Weeknd – real name Abel Tesfaye – had accessed their earlier work, while also adding that the two songs were not similar enough to constitute copyright infringement anyway.

This was the litigation involving Brian Clover, Scott McCulloch and Billy Smith, who said that ‘A Lonely Night’ – from Tesfaye’s 2016 album ‘Starboy’ – ripped off their song ‘I Need To Love’. Clover said that he’d first heard ‘A Lonely Night’ while shopping in the Colchester branch of Topman and that he “instantly knew” he was listening to a rework of his earlier track.

In terms of how Tesfaye or his collaborators might have had access to the trio’s unreleased song, that all centred on Universal Music Publishing. The three songwriters had been signed to the publishing wing of London management company Big Life, which was then bought by the major in 2008. A co-writer on ‘A Lonely Night’, Jason Quenneville, also has links to Universal Music Publishing via a Canadian music firm he works with. So, the theory went, he must have been exposed to ‘I Need To Love’ via Universal.

However, in a motion to dismiss last month, Tesfaye’s lawyers said that Quenneville’s co-write credit on ‘A Lonely Night’ actually stemmed from his work on an earlier unfinished song, a verse from which Tesfaye borrowed for his ‘Starboy’ track. And that earlier unfinished song was written before Quenneville had any connections with Universal.

That motion to dismiss also claimed that the musical elements shared by ‘A Lonely Night’ and ‘I Need To Love’ were also found in lots of other songs. And that one more specific element both songs contained amounted to “three isolated notes spread over three measures, one note per measure”. Citing the recent Ninth Circuit court ruling in the big Led Zeppelin song-theft case, Tesfaye’s lawyers argued that specific element was not substantial enough to be protected by copyright.

This week Californian judge Percy Anderson concurred on that latter point regarding similarity, while also concluding that the theory presented by Clover, McCulloch and Smith as to how Tesfaye had been exposed to ‘I Need To Love’ simply wasn’t credible enough.

Dismissing the lawsuit, Anderson wrote: “The court concludes that plaintiffs have failed to establish genuine disputed issues of material fact concerning defendants’ access to plaintiffs’ musical composition or that defendants’ musical composition is substantially similar to plaintiffs’ work in its protectable elements. As a result, plaintiffs cannot establish a triable issue of fact as to either access or copying to prevail on their claims for copyright infringement”.

Also rejecting claims the plaintiffs had made under Californian state law, he concluded “the court therefore grants defendants’ motion for summary judgment”.

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