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US appeals court backs The Weeknd in song-theft dispute with British songwriters

By | Published on Monday 11 October 2021

The Weeknd

The Ninth Circuit appeals court in the US has declined to overturn a judgement in a lower court that dismissed a song-theft claim against The Weeknd by British songwriters Brian Clover, Scott McCulloch and Billy Smith. The Weeknd – real name Abel Tesfaye – was accused of ripping off the trio’s song ‘I Need To Love’ on his 2016 track ‘A Lonely Night’.

The British songwriters theorised that The Weeknd and his creative collaborators had got access to their earlier song via Universal Music Publishing. That was on the basis that they had been signed to the publishing wing of London management firm Big Life, which was bought by Universal in 2008. Meanwhile, a co-writer on ‘A Lonely Night’, Jason Quenneville, had links to Universal Music Publishing via a Canadian music firm he works with.

But Tesfaye denied having ever heard ‘I Need To Love’ before writing his song. Meanwhile, his lawyers argued, Quenneville’s co-write credit on ‘A Lonely Night’ actually stemmed from a verse he’d originally written for an earlier unfinished song that was then inserted in the 2016 track. And that earlier unfinished song had been written before Quenneville had any connections with Universal.

Tesfaye’s team also argued that ‘I Need To Love’ and ‘A Lonely Night’ were not as similar as Clover, McCulloch and Smith claimed, citing the precedent on similarity in song-theft cases that had been set in the headline-grabbing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ copyright litigation.

Those arguments questioning both Tesfaye’s access to the earlier song, and the similarities between ‘I Need To Love’ and ‘A Lonely Night’, proved successful, with the judge hearing the dispute dismissing the case in July 2020.

Clover and McCulloch appealed that ruling, claiming that their arguments regarding both access and similarity were sufficiently strong for the case to go before a jury. Therefore the judge in the lower court had been wrong to grant Tesfaye’s motion to dismiss.

However, appeal judges in the Ninth Circuit court do not concur. According to Law360, they ruled on Friday that the judge in the lower court was right to conclude that the theory for how Tesfaye had access to ‘I Need To Love’ simply wasn’t strong enough. And therefore, that judge was right to dismiss the British songwriters’ lawsuit.

Legal reps for Clover and McCulloch told Law360 on Friday that they are now reviewing the Ninth Circuit’s judgement.

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