A federal judge ruled Thursday (Dec. 9) that Taylor Swift must face a jury trial over accusations she stole the lyrics to “Shake It Off” from another song that also references “playas” and “haters.”
U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald refused Swift’s request to toss out the case, ruling that a jury might eventually find that her 2014 chart-topping hit had infringed a copyright to “Playas Gon’ Play,” a track released in 2001 by the group 3LW.
Though there are “some noticeable differences” between the two songs, the judge said there were “enough objective similarities” that he could not dismiss the case himself. The judge said Swift’s defense would present “a strong closing argument” for an eventual jury trial, but that she would still need to face one.
The case against Swift was filed in 2017 by Sean Hall and Nathan Butler, the songwriters who wrote “Playas Gon’ Play.” In the 2001 song, the line was “playas, they gonna play” and “haters, they gonna hate”; in Swift’s track, she sings, “‘Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”
“Shake It Off” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 2014 and spent four weeks atop the chart. The song ultimately spent 50 weeks on the Hot 100, tied with Swift’s “You Belong With Me” for her longest-charting single.
Hall and Butler’s case floundered early. In 2018, Judge Fitzgerald dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that Hall and Butler’s lyrics were merely “short phrases that lack the modicum of originality and creativity required for copyright protection.” The judge cited 13 different earlier songs that featured similar phrases, including “Playa Hater” by The Notorious B.I.G. and “Man U Luv to Hate” by Sir Mix-A-Lot.
But a year later, a federal appeals court reversed that ruling. The court said Fitzgerald had tossed the case too early and that “Playas Gon’ Play” was sufficiently creative for copyright protection. The ruling sent the case back to Judge Fitzgerald for new proceedings.
Back in lower court, Swift again moved to escape the case, asking the judge to grant her so-called summary judgment – an immediate ruling that she had not infringed any copyrights. But on Thursday, Judge Fitzgerald refused.
“Even though there are some noticeable differences between the works, there are also significant similarities in word usage and sequence/structure,” the judge wrote. “Although Defendants’ experts strongly refute the implication that there are substantial similarities, the Court is not inclined to overly credit their opinions here.”
Following Thursday’s decision, an attorney for Swift did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But an attorney for Hall and Butler praised the ruling, saying the court “did the right thing.”
“Our clients are finally moving closer to the justice they so richly deserve,” said Marina Bogorad, an attorney at the firm Gerard Fox Law PC. “The opinion … is especially gratifying to them because it reinforces the idea that their creativity and unique expression cannot be misappropriated without any retribution.”
The ruling sets the stage for a jury trial, which is tentatively scheduled for August 2022.