Back in March we wrote about Taylor Swift’s efforts to register as trademarks certain lyrics and phrases related to her 1989 album and world tour. Those applications remain pending in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In the meantime, dance rap duo LMFAO just obtained summary judgment in its favor on a copyright infringement claim brought by rapper Rick Ross over merchandise bearing the phrase “Everyday I’m Shufflin’.” Ross claimed that the phrase used on merchandise infringed the copyright in the musical composition “Hustlin,’” which consists of a repeated refrain of the phrase “everyday I’m hustlin’” and the words “hustle” and “hustlin’.” Ross’ claim boiled down to this: the copyright in the musical composition as a whole also covers the oft-repeated phrase. Or to put I more simply, Ross claimed copyright in the phrase “Everyday I’m Hustlin’.” As a longtime copyright lawyer, I was LMFAO when I learned that the case got as far as it did. The case is William L. Roberts, II, et al. v. Stefan Kendal Gordy, et al.
It is basic, black letter copyright law that words and short phrases are not copyrightable subject matter and the court ruled accordingly. Furthermore, as discussed in detail in the court’s opinion, there have been more than a few prior cases that applied this rule to song lyrics, raising the question of why the Ross team thought this case was different. Ms. Swift obviously understood the different treatment accorded short phrases or slogans under trademark and copyright law and, accordingly, sought protection for her phrases as trademarks. Mr. Ross relied on copyright instead with predictable results.