Law School Case Brief
Peters v. West - 692 F.3d 629 (7th Cir. 2012)
Regarding the degree of similarity required to establish an inference of access and the "inverses ratio" to the quantum of direct evidence adduced to establish access, it is notable that United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has never endorsed the other side of the inverse relation: the idea that a "high degree of access" justifies a "lower standard of proof" for similarity. Evidence of access is required because independent creation is a defense to copyright infringement, and so a plaintiff must show that the defendant had an opportunity to copy her original work. This issue is independent of the question whether an alleged infringer breached his duty not to copy another's work. Once a plaintiff establishes that a defendant could have copied her work, she must separately prove—regardless of how good or restricted the opportunity was—that the allegedly infringing work is indeed a copy of her original.
Plaintiff Vincent Peters, whose stage name was Vince P, was a songwriter. After he wrote, recorded, and distributed a song, he met with a producer, John Monopoly, and left a CD with Monopoly. Less than a year later, defendant Kanye West, a superstar, released a song that allegedly contained similarities to Peters' song. Monopoly was a close friend and business manager to West. Peters filed a lawsuit against West and others in federal district court alleging copyright infringement under 17 U.S.C.S. §§ 102 and 106. West filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, which the district court granted. Peters appealed.
Did having ample access to Peters' song provide sufficient evidence to support a copyright infringement claim?
The court of appeals affirmed the district court's judgment. The appellate court determined that Peters' allegations that Monopoly had access to his song and that Monopoly had a close relationship with West suggested that Monopoly and West had ample access to Peters' song and that this access gave West an opportunity to copy the song. However, Peters' copyright infringement claim failed because he did not prove similarity since, inter alia: (1) the ubiquity of a common saying, together with its repeated use in other songs, suggested that West's title and lyric did not infringe on Peters' song; (2) regarding the rhyme pattern, Peters could not claim copyright over a tercet, and; (3) the songs' references to a well-known supermodel did not show infringement.
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