Artist News Business News Labels & Publishers Legal

The Weeknd hits back at A Lonely Night song-theft claim by British songwriters

By | Published on Thursday 4 June 2020

The Weeknd

Having settled his copyright lawsuit with Yeasayer this week, The Weeknd can now focus on trying to get another song-theft claim against him dismissed.

This is the one being pursued by British songwriters Brian Clover, Scott McCulloch and Billy Smith. In a new legal filing, The Weeknd’s lawyers say that the discovery process in that case – “to the extent plaintiffs have bothered to comply with it” – simply confirms what their client had said all along, that the trio’s lawsuit is “frivolous”.

Clover, McCulloch and Smith accuse The Weeknd, real name Abel Tesfaye, of ripping off their song ‘I Need To Love’ on his track ‘A Lonely Night’, which appears on the 2016 album ‘Starboy’.

The trio’s story begins in 2005 when they did a deal with the publishing wing of London management company Big Life, which then started pitching three of their works, including ‘I Need To Love’, to artists and labels.

The original Big Life Music songs business was then bought by Universal Music Publishing in 2008. Eight years on, Universal told the trio that, as their songs hadn’t been picked up by any artists, it was relinquishing its control of the three works.

Two weeks after they were dropped by the publishing business, the recordings side of Universal Music released ‘Starboy’, which enjoyed global success, topping the US album charts. Clover first heard ‘Starboy’ track ‘A Lonely Night’ while shopping in the Colchester branch of Topman and, he claims, he “instantly knew” he was listening to a rework of ‘I Need To Love’.

Tesfaye has denied the song-theft claims of Clover, McCulloch and Smith from the off, including in previous legal filings. In the latest submission to the court his lawyers set out their arguments for why the British songwriters fail to demonstrate either that Tesfaye and his team had access to their earlier song or that, even, the two songs are sufficiently similar to constitute copyright infringement.

Trying to rubbish the three men’s claims from the off, the legal filing summarises the dispute as follows: “[The plaintiffs claim that] a musical composition they wrote in the UK in 2005, but which was never recorded by a record company or otherwise released to the public – indeed, their UK music publisher gratuitously relinquished to plaintiffs all rights in the ‘unexploited composition’ – was copied eleven years later by a song created a continent and ocean away, in Los Angeles, California”.

On the access point – ie did Tesfaye or his collaborators have access to ‘I Need To Love’ before writing ‘A Lonely Night’ – the plaintiffs rely on each side’s connections with the publishing business of Universal Music, citing in particular Jason Quenneville, a co-writer on Tesfaye’s track. Because ‘I Need To Love’ was never released, the logic goes that the song was passed through Universal to Quenneville.

However, the new legal filing argues, Quenneville was not actively involved in the creation of ‘A Lonely Night’, his co-write credit coming from a verse that was originally written for an earlier unfinished song that Tesfaye then used in his ‘Starboy’ song.

That verse has nothing to do with the song-theft claim and, anyway, was written before Quenneville had any link to Universal Music Publishing, via a Canadian music firm that he works with. The lawsuit also insists that Universal Music Publishing in London and LA, while part of the same group, are basically separate companies.

As for the claims that ‘I Need To Love’ and ‘A Lonely Night’ are substantially similar, Tesfaye’s legal team rely on familiar counter-arguments in that domain. Mainly that many of the musical elements found in the two songs are also found in other works: Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’ and David Arnold and Garbage’s Bond theme for ‘The World Is Not Enough’ both get mentioned, both of which pre-date ‘I Need To Love’ and ‘A Lonely Night’.

Citing the recent Ninth Circuit judgement on the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ song-theft dispute, the legal filing states: “The allegedly similar short portion of music appears in prior art, which, when that prior art is disregarded … leaves plaintiffs with a total of three isolated notes spread over three measures, one note per measure. That does not even rise to the three consecutive notes that the Ninth Circuit recently confirmed en banc cannot be protected”.

After going into all that in quite some detail, Tesfaye’s lawyers conclude: “Plaintiffs are unable to raise a genuine dispute as to the required elements of their claim for direct copyright infringement claim and, with the collapse of that claim and for additional reasons as well, their secondary infringement claims and state law claims evaporate. Defendants respectfully submit that summary judgment [in our favour] should be granted”.

We await a response from Clover, McCulloch and Smith, and – of course – the judge.