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Taylor Swift’s Five-Year Legal Battle Over ‘Shake It Off,’ Explained

What's Taylor accused of doing? Why's it taking so long? What happens if she loses? Here's everything to know about the star's never-ending legal fight.

This week’s claim from Taylor Swift that “Shake It Off” was “written entirely by me” is just the latest twist in a copyright lawsuit that’s been underway for five years now, pitting the superstar against two little-known songwriters in a fight over the lyrics to one of her biggest hits.

Filed back in 2017, the case claims that Taylor lifted her lyrics to “Shake It Off” about “players gonna play” and “haters gonna hate” from a 2001 song called “Playas Gon’ Play” by the group 3LW, which featured some similar wording about “players” and “haters.”

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If you’ve lost track of the case, don’t feel too bad. Across half a decade of litigation, the “Shake It Off” lawsuit has already seen dozens of motions, several key rulings and a high-profile reversal by an appeals court, all without ever reaching a jury trial or a final decision on the accusations.

To catch you up to speed, here’s everything you need to know about Taylor’s long legal battle over “Shake It Off.”

What’s Taylor accused of doing wrong?

In September 2017, songwriters Sean Hall and Nathan Butler filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Swift, Big Machine Records, Sony Music Publishing and others involved in “Shake It Off,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 2014 and ultimately spent 50 weeks on the chart.

In their complaint, Hall and Butler accused Swift of stealing the central lyrics from their “Playas Gon’ Play,” a song released by R&B group 3LW in 2001 that eventually reached No. 81 on the Hot 100. The song also appeared on MTV’s then-ubiquitous Total Request Live music video countdown.

In Hall and Butler’s 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.” In their complaint, the duo said Swift’s lyric was clearly copied from their song.

“Defendants knew or should have known that “Playas Gon’ Play” could not be used in a musical work by Defendants without a license and/or songwriting credit, as is customary standard practice in the music industry,” Hall and Butler wrote.

Go read Hall and Butler’s full legal complaint HERE.

How did Taylor respond to the lawsuit?

Swift’s lawyers quickly shot back that the lawsuit was “fundamentally flawed” and should be dismissed, arguing that the short snippet of lyrics was not creative or unique enough to be covered by copyrights. They cited more than a dozen earlier songs that had used similar phrases, including 1997’s “Playa Hater” by Notorious B.I.G and 1999’s “Don’t Hate the Player” by Ice-T.

A few months later, a federal judge agreed with those arguments. Ruling that American popular culture had been “heavily steeped in the concepts of players, haters, and player haters” back in 2001 and that no single artist could claim a monopoly on such concepts, Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald dismissed the case in February 2018.

“It is hardly surprising that [Hall and Butler], hoping to convey the notion that one should persist regardless of others’ thoughts or actions, focused on both players playing and haters hating when numerous recent popular songs had each addressed the subjects of players, haters, and player haters,” the judge wrote at the time. “In short, combining two truisms about playas and haters, both well-worn notions as of 2001, is simply not enough.”

Go read the full ruling HERE.

Why is the case still going on years later?

In 2019, a federal appeals court – the Ninth Circuit – overturned Judge Fitzgerald’s decision and revived Hall and Butler’s lawsuit against Swift. The appeals court ruled that the judge had tossed the case too early and that “Playas Gon’ Play” had cleared the relatively-low threshold for copyright protection.

Back in Judge Fitzgerald’s lower court, Swift’s lawyers once again moved to end the case. They asked the judge to grant her so-called summary judgment – an immediate ruling that she had not infringed any copyrights. But in December, the judge refused to do so.

“Even though there are some noticeable differences between the works, there are also significant similarities in word usage and sequence/structure,” the judge wrote at the time.

The December decision set the stage for a trial in which a jury will decide whether the lyrics to “Shake It Off” infringed the lyrics to “Playas Gon’ Play.” Following the ruling, Hall and Butler’s lawyer said the songwriters were “finally moving closer to the justice they so richly deserve.”

Go read the Ninth Circuit’s ruling HERE and the December ruling HERE.

What comes next?

Currently, Taylor’s lawyers are trying their best to avoid that trial. In December, they asked Judge Fitzgerald to reconsider his ruling, calling the decision to let the case go to trial “unprecedented” and warning it could “cheat the public domain.” Hall and Butler’s lawyers fired back in January, claiming Swift’s attorneys were “rehashing old arguments” and simply “unhappy” with the prospect of a trial.

This week, Swift’s team again asked Judge Fitzgerald to decide the case without the help of a jury, arguing that months of discovery in the case had turned up other “fatal flaws” in the accusations. Among other things, they said it was now clear that Taylor had never heard the song – a key requirement in any copyright lawsuit.

That argument is why Taylor also filed her own sworn declaration in the case, stating clearly that “the first time I ever heard the song” was after the case was filed: “Until learning about Plaintiffs’ claim in 2017, I had never heard the song Playas Gon’ Play and had never heard of that song or the group 3LW,” the star wrote, adding that her parents “did not permit me to watch TRL until I was about 13 years old.”

If Swift’s motion is denied, a trial will take place at some point in the future; no date has yet been set.

Go read Taylor’s full declaration HERE.

What happens if Taylor loses?

Back in December, Judge Fitzgerald said Swift and her legal team will have a “strong closing argument” when the case is presented to jurors, and legal experts who chatted with Billboard generally agreed that Swift is the favorite to eventually prevail in the case.

But jury trials are notoriously difficult to predict, especially when it comes to music copyrights – a scenario that asks untrained citizens to weigh a complex mix of legal concepts and subjective listening. Most court watchers initially expected Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to defeat accusations that they ripped off “Blurred Lines” from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” but the pair of superstars famously lost at trial in 2015.

If she does lose, Taylor and the other defendants would likely need to pay a sizeable award of damages, as well as an ongoing royalty from the song. In the “Blurred Lines” case, Thicke, Pharrell and several other defendants were eventually ordered to pay just under $5 million in damages to Gaye’s family, plus a lucrative 50 percent royalty going forward.