Country music superstars Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley are suddenly facing a very serious lawsuit after a federal judge in Nashville refused on Tuesday to dismiss a songwriter's claim of having her song stolen to create the duo's platinum-selling song, "Remind Me."
Amy Bowen (known professionally as Lizza Connor) has brought allegations that could make for an episode of ABC's Nashville.
According to a lawsuit she filed in May, the young songwriter composed her song in 2008 and then participated in a 14-week "Country Music Songwriting Workshop." There, she performed her own "Remind Me" for other composers, including advisors John Kelley Lovelace and Charles DuBois. Her song was critiqued. She was told that the song would work as a duet. Thereafter, she performed it for years at various Nashville venues and worked to improve it.
About three years ago, Paisley, Lovelace and DuBois worked on a new song, also entitled "Remind Me." It was recorded in February 2011 and put out by Sony Music. It sold more than one million copies and achieved the top position on Billboard's chart for country songs.
And so, Bowen took Paisley, Underwood, Sony and others to court for allegedly taking her work. But not just any court. She went to federal court in Nashville, which is on the way to becoming a very friendly forum for plaintiffs in music disputes. The ruling on Tuesday by Judge Aleta Trauger provides a good illustration of this.
Typically, claims of theft in entertainment don't last very long in courts. But in cases involving Bridgeport, an entity controlling recordings by George Clinton and Funkadelic, the 6th Circuit has conferred protection on such small things as a two-second guitar chord and the phrase "bow wow wow, yippee yo, yippea yea."
In her ruling, Judge Trauger nods to the "bow wow wow" case as well as the legal principle that a plaintiff who shows a high degree of access has a lower standard of proof when it comes to demonstrating substantial similarity. Here, Bowen's story of having her work showcased at a songwriting workshop and at Nashville venues appears to have done the job. The judge notes that for purposes of their motion to dismiss, Underwood and Paisley "do not dispute that the Amended Complaint sufficiently alleges 'access' to Bowen's copyrighted material." In legal papers, the defendants denied the two songs were similar enough.
All that remains for the judge is a determination on whether or not Bowen can plausibly establish that the copyrighted elements of her "Remind Me" are "substantially similar" enough to the Paisley/Underwood recording.
What's different about the two songs? Well, most of the lyrics for one thing.
But both songs do use "remind me" and "baby, remind me" -- and then, there's the way "remind me" was used. According to the judge, "Bowen has plausibly shown that, taken in combination, the lyrics and associated melodies, intonations, and usage could be sufficiently original to constitute protectable material."
Judge Trauger takes a listen. Here's what she says:
"As Bowen points out, in both recordings, (1) the phrase 'Remind me' is often followed by the partner phrase 'Baby, remind me,' which essentially echoes the hook; (2) the hooks are repeated in close proximity and with similar intonation – higher the second time than the first; (3) the hooks rise in pitch from 're-' to '-mind' and descend in pitch from 're-' to '-mind,'; and (4) the syllable 're-' crosses two tones and the syllable '-me' crosses at least three tones.'
According to the judge, Bowen can make a sufficient case that the use of these phrases in the hook "are more than mere coincidence, and in fact reflected coping of the Original Song by composers who were already familiar with Bowen's work from the Country Music Songwriting Workshop -- if not from other avenues as well."
This doesn't mean that the judge has ruled that the country music superstars are guilty of stealing a song. Not yet. But it does mean that Underwood and Paisley can't escape the lawsuit, and could find themselves on trial after more expert testimony is gathered.
- This article originally appeared in THR.com.