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Dancehall lyric borrowed by Miley Cyrus a “mere transliteration”, says latest legal filing in We Can’t Stop copyright case

By | Published on Friday 24 August 2018

Miley Cyrus

Lawyers for Miley Cyrus have formally filed their motion seeking to dismiss the copyright infringement case being pursued against the pop star by Jamaican dancehall artist Flourgon. You know, the one where she’s accused of ripping off a lyric for her 2013 single ‘We Can’t Stop’.

Flourgon, real name Michael May, sued Cyrus back in March claiming that ‘We Can’t Stop’ infringed his 1998 track ‘We Run Things’. The dispute centres on a single lyric, with May arguing that Cyrus and her songwriting pals lifted his line “we run things, things no run we” and tweaked it to go: “we run things, things don’t run we”.

The lawsuit noted the popularity of ‘We Run Things’ within reggae and dancehall circles. It then referenced an interview with songwriting duo Rock City – co-writers on the Cyrus song – in which they talked about how reggae culture had influenced ‘We Can’t Stop’. May’s legal filing then argued that Cyrus’s team had taken reggae influences – including his lyric – as part of a plan to re-invent the pop star’s image.

Lawyers for Cyrus, her songwriting partners and Sony Music had already let it be known that they believed May had no case, but now they’ve formally filed paperwork requesting that the entire lawsuit be dismissed via summary judgement.

Team Cyrus had already presented three arguments as to why May’s copyright claim was invalid: that a single lyric isn’t protected by copyright, that Cyrus’s use of it was ‘fair use’, and that May’s lyric in ‘We Run Things’ isn’t in itself original.

They embellished on the latter point in this week’s legal filing. May has admitted that his lyric “we run things, things no run we” is based on a pre-existing phrase in Jamaican Patois that goes “wi run tings, tings nuh run wi”. However, he says he “uniquely and creatively mixed” that phrase with the English language, creating a separate derivative work in which he is the copyright owner.

Countering this argument, Team Cyrus write: “To qualify as a copyrightable derivative, his new material must be independently protectable; here, it is most certainly not: his change from ‘wi run tings, tings nuh run wi’ to ‘we run things, things no run we’ is not, as he claims, a ‘unique’ and ‘creative mix’, but is rather a mere transliteration that cannot satisfy that minimum threshold”.

They go on: “Even if it did, copyright protection for a derivative extends only to the new elements plaintiff added. Plaintiff also admits that defendants altered his ‘new’ elements, as ‘Stop’ uses the phrase ‘we run things, things don’t run we’. In essence, plaintiff’s entire claim rests on the far-fetched notion that defendants’ use of a variation of a short phrase originated from the Jamaican Patois infringes his copyright in a different and negligible variation of that same phrase. That is not the law”.

When Cyrus et al first presented their initial arguments against May’s case, the judge hearing the dispute said he thought some of their points would need more scrutiny than is possible under summary judgement. It now remains to be seen if the more detailed arguments presented by the pop star and her team this week convinces him otherwise.