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Dua Lipa faces two lawsuits over her song 'Levitating.' Some legal experts say copyright infringement is hard to prove.

Determining copyright infringement involves more than just pointing out whether two works “sound” similar in “style or vibe,” a forensic musicologist said.
Dua Lipa walks the runway at the Versace fashion show during the Milan Fashion Week on Sept. 24, 2021, in Milan, Italy.
Dua Lipa walks the runway at the Versace fashion show Sept. 24 during Milan Fashion Week in Milan, Italy.Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images file

Dua Lipa faces two lawsuits over her 2020 hit "Levitating," with separate artists accusing her of ripping off their songs.

The first complaint, filed last week in Los Angeles federal court by the members of the reggae band Artikal Sound System, alleges that "Levitating" is "substantially similar" to its 2017 song "Live Your Life." The band alleges that Dua Lipa and her team "listened to and copied" its song while writing "Levitating," according to court documents.

In the second complaint, filed Friday in New York federal court, the songwriters L. Russell Brown and Sandy Linzer accuse Dua Lipa of copying the 1979 disco track "Wiggle and Giggle All Night." They also hold the copyright to the 1980 song "Don Diablo" by Miguel Bosé, which had infringed on "Wiggle and Giggle."

A spokesperson for Dua Lipa didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The complaints are the latest examples of legal cases that involve accusations of song stealing. Such cases are hard to win, according to some legal experts.

Determining copyright infringement involves more than just pointing out whether two works “sound” similar in “style or vibe," forensic musicologist Judith Finell said.

“None of that is copyright protected,” said Finell, who has testified as an expert witness in high-profile music copyright cases, including one of the best-known cases, involving the 2013 song “Blurred Lines." In 2015, a judge ordered Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to pay nearly $5 million to Marvin Gaye's estate after a jury determined that their song infringed on Gaye's “Got to Give It Up."

Copyright disputes over music typically involve analyzing the composition of each song involved and the recording itself, Finell said.

The elements of a song's composition that are copyright protected, she said, include the notes and rhythms used to create the song's melodies and harmonies, as well as the lyrics used in the song. The actual recording of the song falls under a separate set of copyright laws.

Did the second song copy the first song, or did the second song copy music that was written by hundreds of other people that had the same similarity?

forensic musicologist judith finell

"I've developed a kind of a hierarchy that I look at, and I testify about it," Finell said. "It would be melody, meaning pitch, and melody, meaning rhythm but also chords and lyrics. How much of the material exists in each song? ... With the 'Blurred Lines' case I saw a constellation of similar features that both sides had. It wasn't just one similarity. It was many different similarities that intersected in a similar way."

Finell said that at the moment, she isn't involved in the cases against "Levitating" and can't speak about the specifics of each song. She said pointing out that the songs are in the same key doesn't hold much weight in a copyright case. What does matter, she said, are the possible similarities between the chord structures used in each song.

"And then what has to be considered even if you find similarities [is] how original is it?" she added. "Did the second song copy the first song, or did the second song copy music that was written by hundreds of other people that had the same similarity? That's the kind of analysis I would do."

Intellectual property lawyer Richard Busch, who represented Gaye's family in the "Blurred Lines" case, has been described as "hated by the biggest companies in music." He said that beyond just the composition and recording similarities, the plaintiffs in music copyright cases have to prove that defendants had access to the songs they're accused of copying.

Busch called the complaint filed by the members of Artikal Sound System "the most sparse bare-bones complaint" he's "ever seen in 20 years of doing this."

"The song is not presently on any major streaming platform. It is not available on iTunes. It's not RIAA-certified, and it has a very limited number of YouTube plays," Busch said, referring to the Recording Industry Association of America. "They're going to have to show a likelihood of access. Given the fact that this song is not really that distributed, it is going to be sort of a challenge."

The court documents say "Live Your Life" "appeared on a variety of streaming services including Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, Amazon and Sound Cloud." At the time of reporting, the song was available for streaming only on Sound Cloud. It is unclear whether the song was taken down before the suit was filed.

Busch added that the court documents don't specify details of the alleged similarities between the two songs, either, and said that in the complaints he files, his team will "include transcriptions that show how the notes match up."

"Given the lack of factual details, if I was on the defense side ... I would file a motion to dismiss, because there [are] just no factual allegations," Busch said. "There's no pleading of how access was obtained other than belief they listened to it. And there's no description of how the two songs are substantially similar."

The case filed by Brown and Linzer, meanwhile, specifically highlights that the alleged "signature melody" from their song appears in "Levitating" six times. It appears in the DaBaby remix three times. The documents also say Dua Lipa admitted to having been inspired by disco-era music for her 2020 album "Future Nostalgia" and that other music experts, like journalists and record producers, have pointed out the similarities between the two songs.

Busch didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up request for comment about the second complaint.

He said that although videos pointing out the similarities between "Levitating" and the other songs are gaining attention on social media, it doesn't matter in court compared to the specific details needed to build a case.

"Regardless of whether people think or don't think that it's a valid claim, at the end of the day, that doesn't really matter," Busch said.

Finell added that people listening to the songs "do need to think below the surface."

"Something that's similar, like a groove or a vibe, or has a similar feel because it's the same style, it's not enough," Finell said. "There are many, many songs that share those features and never end up in court."