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Shake It Off lyrical legal battle settled

By | Published on Tuesday 13 December 2022

Taylor Swift

One of the big ongoing song theft legal battles has been settled. A deal has been reached between Taylor Swift and songwriters Sean Hall and Nathan Butler over the lyrical references to playas playing and haters hating in her 2014 hit ‘Shake It Off’.

Hall and Butler accused Swift of ripping off their 2001 song ‘Playas Gon Play’ when she wrote ‘Shake It Off’. The earlier song included the line “the playas gon play/them haters gonna hate”, while Swift’s hit famously featured the lyric “the players gonna play, play, play, play, play/and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate”.

Throughout, Swift’s legal team argued that the notion of players playing and haters hating is far too generic for lyrics based on said notion to be protected by copyright in isolation. Initially the judge overseeing the case, Michael W Fitzgerald, agreed with that viewpoint and dismissed Hall and Butler’s lawsuit as a result. But that decision was then overturned on appeal.

Swift’s lawyers then tried very hard indeed to have the case dismissed for a second time, possibly sensing that Fitzgerald was still of the opinion that Hall and Butler’s legal claim was pretty weak. But the judge seemed to conclude that the Swift side’s specific arguments hadn’t really changed, so it would be inappropriate to dismiss for a second time when the higher court had reversed the initial dismissal.

This meant that the whole dispute was due to head to trial early next year. More recently Swift herself insisted that she couldn’t possibly have heard ‘Playas Gon Play’ before writing ‘Shake It Off’, because she never watched MTV and was mainly into country music when the former was released.

Her lawyers then tried presenting the sneaky argument that Hall and Butler didn’t even have the right to sue over the alleged lyric theft, because that right had been assigned to their respective publishers via their publishing deals. And the publishers in control of ‘Playas Gon Play’ are also the publishers of ‘Shake It Off’, so they were clearly not going to take on the legal battle on behalf of the writers.

All of those claims would have got more scrutiny had the case got properly to trial. But, alas, that isn’t going to happen. Which is no fun at all.

Yesterday legal reps for both sides told the court that they now supported an order “dismissing this action, in its entirety, with prejudice and with plaintiffs, on the one hand, and defendants, on the other hand, to bear their respective attorneys’ fees and costs”.

And Fitzgerald then issued an order stating: “Pursuant to the parties’ stipulation, this action is hereby dismissed, in its entirety and with prejudice, plaintiffs and defendants to bear their respective attorney’s fees and cost”.

Needless to say, we don’t currently have any information about what deal has been done, nor whether Hall and Butler will receive damages, or songwriting credits on and future royalties from ‘Shake It Off’.

Generally speaking the courts in the US and UK have been narrowing the scope of song-theft legal claims in recent years, seeming very nervous to grant copyright protection to short commonplace musical segments, and generally setting the bar pretty high when it comes to proving that the creators of a new song had access to an older song.

That said, it would have been interesting to get full court scrutiny on this case, centred as it was on lyrics rather than a musical composition.