[Latest Update: In a recent interview with MTV (7/25/14), Lecrae distanced himself from the lawsuit and clarified that it’s actually Flame’s song and Flame who is primarily initiating the suit. Lecrae also distanced himself from Flame’s comments about witchcraft and offered some kind words and a gesture of friendship towards Katy Perry. Read the details here.]
In our recent Weekly Rocking God’s House Video, Keaton mentioned some very big news that broke in the media a few days ago: the Christian hip-hop rappers Lecrae and Flame are suing Katy Petty and rapper Juicy J for copyright infringement — specifically that her mega-hit song “Dark Horse” plagiarizes Lecrae’s song “Joyful Noise.”
Here’s how this is going to work:
1) I’m going to explain why my semi-personal connections to Katy Perry have made me very interested in this case.
2) As a composer who has a B.A. in Music Composition (and who took classes that discussed plagiarism issues) I will explain why I think Lecrae will win this case.
3) I will feature a superb audio track that presents the two tracks side-by-side so you can hear the music and decide for yourself. Whether you agree or disagree with me, please go and vote your opinion here after you read this article!
Here we go:
1) Why I’m Personally Interested in This Case
First, let me explain my Katy Perry “connection” — and I put it in quotes because it’s a loose connection. She’s from my town (Santa Barbara, CA area), she went to a Christian grade school/junior high that was run by my church at one point (though I wasn’t a part of the church then), a writing associate of mine here in Santa Barbara knows her parents well, and (believe it or not) I trained in kung fu with one of her alleged producers (“alleged” because he claimed to be producing something for her — never found out what or when).
Very loose, random connections.
But from all the little comments I’ve heard about Katy Perry over the years — from people who’ve known her personally — I would be very surprised if she intentionally plagiarized another artist. I don’t think she’s that sort of person. I might provoke some tar and feathering by saying this, but I also do not believe — despite the highly offensive content she put in the music video for “Dark Horse” — that she has any genuine interest in the occult or satanism. We would all be surprised about how so much of that stuff is all marketing ploys to boost sales and publicity. I’m not defending her decision to go along with those themes in the video, but we shouldn’t always be so easily manipulated by the marketing traps of pop culture. Marketers, in many ways, throw things like that in our faces because they want us to react and help drum up publicity for them.
Why bring all that up? My point is this: even though I’m a Christian editor of a Christian website, that doesn’t mean I’m automatically going to throw Katy Perry under the bus just because a Christian artist is suing her. I believe he will win not because I’m a Christian and not because of an emotional bias toward my faith. I believe he will win simply because of how copyright law works.
2) Why the Copyright Law is on Lecrae’s Side
Two crucial things to know about copyright law:
- An artist does not have to copy an entire song to be sued for plagiarism. They need only copy a recognizable motif in the song, which only has to be a few notes long and something unique. Many folks call this a “riff.”
- To sue someone for copyright infringement, you must not only prove that the alleged plagiarizer copied a motif in your song and claimed it as their own original work, but you must also prove that the person had a reasonable amount of access to your song before they plagiarized it.
I’ll start with the second point: Lecrae’s song came out in 2008, years before Perry recorded and released “Dark Horse” in 2013. Lecrae moves in a major music market that has found fans in both Christian and secular industries and in a genre that Perry used in the general production of “Dark Horse.” It’s not impossible that Perry or Juicy J or her production team could have heard Lecrae’s song somewhere.
However, can a lawyer prove that Perry or her team had possible access to Lecrae’s song? I doubt Lecrae’s legal team would have advised him to sue if they didn’t think they had a chance in this area. Strangely enough, Perry’s Christian past (she started out as a Christian recording artist) might be her Achilles Heel. I could see lawyers trying to show that her prior interest in the Christian music industry makes it a reasonable possibility that she has checked out some of Lecrae’s music.
And, of course, there’s the issue of proving the musical similarities between the songs. This, in my opinion, will be the easiest part for Lecrae’s lawyers.
3) Comparing the Two Songs Side-by-Side
The primary motif in his song “Joyful Noise” has eight notes: the first four on a high pitch, the next three on a slightly lower pitch, and the last one on a diving pitch that sort of swoops/drops down. It’s very distinctive and memorable; it gets stuck in your head. It’s a classic example of a motif or riff.
The primary motif in Perry’s “Dark Horse” (in the verse) also has eight notes: the first four on a high pitch, the next two on a slightly lower pitch (same interval change as Lecrae), and the final two drop down similar to Lecrae’s notes, but the drop is not as sudden, which spreads the drop across a couple beats.
Besides a slightly slower “drop” at the end, the only differences are that her tempo is a little slowed down, and the overall key is slightly lower. The real kicker? You overlay Perry’s vocals over Lecrae’s riff (as you can hear below) — with a very slight tweak to the tempo and the overall key — and her song fits perfectly over Lecrae.
But don’t take my word for it. A very talented DJ spliced the two tracks into one track that switches back and forth at key moments so you can closely compare the songs, and then he overlays the two tracks at the end so you can hear Perry singing over Lecrae’s beat.
Check it out for yourself here.
Was It Really Katy or Was It Her Production Team?
Assuming my prediction doesn’t fall flat on its face, I personally think that the riff and beat in question was most likely crafted by her songwriting/production team. That doesn’t excuse anybody, of course — every artist is responsible for knowing what content is ending up in their song — but I only mention it because sometimes we (the Christian community) can be very quick to accuse, judge, and jail (in our minds) people in the secular world — people we don’t even know personally.
Frankly, that kind of reaction really hurts our ability to show the love of Christ to the world when we leap at the opportunity to condemn someone and relish in their downfall. We should never take pleasure in seeing someone else stumble, not if we’re serious followers of the One who said to “love your enemies.”
One Final Thought: What Do Katy Perry, The Beatles, and Radiohead Have in Common?
Some say that Katy Perry’s “too big” of an artist to lose in court because of her high-powered lawyers, but the historical track record of copyright cases proves otherwise. George Harrison was sued for “My Sweet Lord” because he plagiarized the Chiffons, though he claimed that it was completely unintentional. The court didn’t buy it. Coldplay was sued in 2008 by Joe Satriani for the Coldplay song “Viva La Vida.” They settled out of court, though people still debate who would’ve won if it had stayed in court. The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, and Radiohead were all sued for plagiarism, and all of them either lost or settled out of court with hefty financial arrangements for the other artists who were suing them.
Bottom-line? This case could easily go in Lecrae’s favor. I think Perry’s lawyers will see that and attempt to seek a settlement rather than let it go to a full trial. If it does go to trial, the PR teams for both artists are going to be very busy.
I just hope that, in the midst of all of it, the church chooses to show love, grace, and mercy toward Perry, even if she is guilty of plagiarizing an inspiring Christian song and turning it into a “dark horse” with offensive content. I’m certainly not blaming Lecrae for being upset; I would be very upset too if I were in his shoes. I’m just worried we’ll be too quick to judge and attack when this could be an opportunity to demonstrate Christ’s boundless forgiveness and mercy.