The United States District Court for the Central District of California has granted summary judgment in a copyright case stemming from singer Gwen Stefani’s 2014 hit song “Spark the Fire.” The suit was brought by Stefani’s former hairdresser Richard Morrill. He alleged that he played Stefani a song called “Who’s Got My Lightah” while working on her hair in the late ‘90s and that she lifted key elements from the song when recording “Spark the Fire” nearly two decades later, including distinctive word pronunciations and rhyme patterns.
In her order granting Stefani’s motion for summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the songs were not substantially similar. Gee found that the pattern of pronouncing words ending in –er as if they had ended in –ah (such as ‘light-ah’ and ‘fi-ah’) did not originate with Morrill, but rather “is a common practice in African American Vernacular English.” The judge also rejected Morrill’s claim that rhyming light-ah and fi-ah at the end of a line was sufficiently original to be given copyright protections. As Gee observes, “the last word in the line of a song often rhymes.”
This lawsuit is the latest example of what Pitchfork describes as a “new frontier for litigiousness” in popular music. The past few years have seen other famous performers like Sam Smith, Robin Thicke, Taylor Swift, and Bruno Mars litigating copyright infringement claims. This trend raises the concern that copyright law may have a chilling effect on the very creative efforts it intends to foster. As entertainment lawyer Mattias Eng observes, “Whenever there is a [big enough] hit…it is virtually guaranteed that there will be some sort of claim…They run the gamut, from ‘ridiculous’ to ‘cause for concern.’”
Alex Van Dyke is an Entertainment Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current first year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2021).