The 10 Biggest Music Law Stories of 2022: Taylor Swift, Young Thug, Cardi B, Dua Lipa & More
A look back at a year of highs and lows for the industry, including blockbuster trials, big rulings, and ongoing debates over issues like rap lyrics in court.
Whether it was Taylor Swift or Prince or Cardi B, 2022 saw major legal battles involving some of the music industry’s biggest stars, ranging from never-ending copyright fights to sprawling criminal cases centered on rap lyrics. Some stars, like Katy Perry, won big; others, like Young Thug and Gunna, faced repeated setbacks; still others, like Megan Thee Stallion and Ed Sheeran, just got exhausted. To catch up, here are 10 big music law stories that you need to remember from 2022.
Taylor Swift Finally Shakes It Off
There was no bigger music copyright lawsuit in 2022 than the long-running case accusing Taylor Swift of stealing the lyrics to “Shake It Off.” Since 2017, songwriters Sean Hall and Nathan Butler had argued that Swift’s song (an all-time smash hit that spent 50 weeks on Hot 100) stole some of its core lyrics from “Playas Gon’ Play,” a 2001 song they wrote for the R&B group 3LW. And despite arguments from Swift’s white-shoe lawyers that lyrics about “playas” and “haters” were too commonplace to be monopolized under copyright law, federal courts repeatedly refused to dismiss the case. Following in the wake of earlier battles over Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” the lawsuit raised big questions about where copyright protection ends and the public domain begins. Those questions were set to be answered at a blockbuster trial in January – until Swift and her accusers reached a sudden settlement earlier this month.
Rap On Trial: A Year of Highs and Lows
Despite widespread criticism of the practice, prosecutors continued to cite rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases in 2022, most prominently when Young Thug and Gunna were indicted in May as part of a sweeping gang case against dozens of members of the Atlanta rap crew YSL. The charges included numerous references to Young Thug and Gunna’s music, claiming lyrics were the kind of “predicate acts” that contributed to the overall criminal enterprise. And Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who bought the case, offered no apologies for doing so: “If you decide to admit your crimes over a beat, I’m gonna use it,” Willis said. “I’m going to continue to do that, people can continue to be angry about it.” And yet, 2022 also saw the enactment of landmark legislation in California that would sharply restrict the practice and efforts to pass similar laws in New York state and at the federal level – hopeful signs for critics who say it unfairly targets black men and violates their First Amendment rights.
Prince Estate Case Closed – Finally
The long legal battle over Prince’s $156 million estate was finally resolved in 2022, more than six years after the iconic rocker died suddenly from a fentanyl overdose without a will. The estate had been stuck in probate court for years, under the control of a court-appointed bank as rival groups of legal heirs wrangled over the rocker’s legacy. Over time, those proceedings came to be dominated in part by Primary Wave, the music industry giant that slowly bought out various Prince heirs to amass a 50% stake in the estate. The biggest hurdle was cleared in January, when the heirs reached a deal with the Internal Revenue Service to set a final tax valuation of $156 million, followed by a ruling February on the basic structure for how the assets would be split into two groups, and then a final judicial approval in August. Prince’s legacy is now a music story and a business story, not a legal story.
Ed Sheeran’s Copyright Nightmare
Ed Sheeran says he’s tired of all the copyright lawsuits, but 2022 was something of an up-and-down year on that front. In April, he won a dramatic victory in U.K. court over his chart-topping 2017 hit “Shape of You,” when a judge ruled that he didn’t copy the song from a little-known track called “Oh Why.” Following an 11-day London trial – in which an opposing attorney called Sheeran a “magpie,” the singer repeatedly took the stand to defend himself, and he once even sang in open court – the judge ruled there was no evidence Sheeran had intentionally or even “subconsciously” copied any of the earlier material. But the respite was short-lived: In October, a federal judge in New York ruled that Sheeran must face a jury trial in a separate case claiming he borrowed key elements of his “Thinking Out Loud” from Marvin Gaye‘s iconic “Let’s Get It On. Barring a reversal (and Sheeran’s lawyers are asking for one) the decision set the stage for a blockbuster trial at some point in 2023, but a date has not yet been set.
Cardi B v. The World
Cardi B started the year with a bang, winning a $4 million defamation verdict in January against Tasha K, a gossip blogger who made salacious false claims on YouTube about drug use, STDs and prostitution. (Cardi’s lawyers are still trying to collect that money, btw.) And in October, she won at trial again, avoiding millions in damages by beating back a bizarre lawsuit filed by a California man whose back tattoos were unwittingly photoshopped onto the “raunchy” cover of Cardi’s 2016 mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1. The star herself took the witness stand in both trials, testifying about the pain of being defamed and sparring with an opposing lawyer over whether he had “receipts.” Oh, and Cardi also resolved a long-standing criminal case by pleading guilty in September to misdemeanor charges stemming from a 2018 bottle-throwing incident at a Queens strip club. All in all, a quiet year.
Dua Lipa’s Double-Whammy
One could argue you’re not truly a pop star until you’ve been sued for copyright infringement a few times; just ask Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. That means Dua Lipa must have truly arrived this year, when she was hit with not one but two separate lawsuits claiming she copied earlier songs when she wrote “Levitating”– the longest-running top 10 song ever by a female artist on the Hot 100. One case was filed by a Florida reggae band named Artikal Sound System, which claimed Lipa lifted the core hook for her song from their 2015 “Live Your Life.” The other case, filed a few days later in March, accused her of copying both a 1979 song called “Wiggle and Giggle All Night” and a 1980 song called “Don Diablo.” Armed with a top-flight legal team, Lipa has already struck back in both cases – but both remain pending.
Taylor Swift … Trust Buster?
Ticketmaster’s disastrous November presale for Taylor Swift’s upcoming Eras Tour – which saw widespread service delays and website crashes as millions of fans tried (and many failed) to buy tickets – resurfaced some uncomfortable legal questions for the all-powerful concert giant and its parent company Live Nation. Those questions have never fully gone away since the two companies merged in 2010, but in the days after the fiasco, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called for new antitrust investigations – and that was before news broke that the U.S. Department of Justice had already launched such a probe. If violations are found, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chair of the Senate subcommittee for antitrust issues, urged regulators to consider “breaking up the company.” Meanwhile, state attorneys general across the country are also probing the debacle, and at least one class action lawsuit has already been filed accusing the company of fraud and “anticompetitive conduct.” Hell hath no fury like Swifties scorned…
Megan Thee Stallion’s Exhausting Year
Following an October appearance on Saturday Night Live promoting the release of her album Traumazine, Megan Thee Stallion said she needed to take a break because she was “so tired, physically and emotionally.” After her 2022 legal battles, it’s hard to blame her. In February, Megan’s long fight with her former record label, 1501 Certified Entertainment, escalated significantly when she accused the company of purposefully mislabeling an album to keep her locked into the deal. 1501 quickly countersued, then Megan upped the stakes again in August with new allegations and demands for damages. And all of that had nothing to do with the even bigger Megan story: A criminal case against Tory Lanez over charges that he shot her in the foot during a July 2020 altercation in Los Angeles. When a trial in that case kicked off earlier this month, Megan took the witness stand to recount the shooting and the toll it had taken on her. “I wish he had just shot and killed me,” she tearfully recounted.
R. Kelly Gets 30 Years – And Gets Convicted Again
Things went from bad to worse for R. Kelly in 2022. After being convicted last year in New York on racketeering and sex trafficking charges, the disgraced R&B singer was sentenced to 30 years in prison on those charges in June. Then in August, he was convicted in Chicago on separate child pornography charges stemming from an infamous video tape involving him and a minor, meaning he faces decades more in prison time. His attorneys plan to appeal both convictions.
Katy Perry Wins Case and Makes Law
When Katy Perry won a copyright ruling at a federal appeals court in March, declaring that her 2013 chart-topper “Dark Horse” hadn’t infringed an earlier song, it was a bigger deal than just one case. Sure, it was important to Perry herself, who avoided $2.8 million verdict by defeating the accusations. And the star was obviously pleased, telling a Las Vegas concert crowd in a viral clip: “So just be sure…before you take me to court, ‘cause I’m a Scorpio, bitch!” But the ruling was also a clear rejection of similar infringement cases over songs, stressing that simple musical “building blocks,” like the short “ostinato” in Perry’s song, cannot be locked up by any particular songwriter because it would chill future songwriting creativity. Much like a 2020 ruling on “Stairway To Heaven,” the decision for Perry could be seen as part of a pendulum swing away from earlier decisions over Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which were criticized by some for expanding music copyrights to more basic elements.