This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings, and all the fun stuff in between.
This week: Miley Cyrus becomes the latest celebrity sued over an Instagram image of themselves, Taylor Swift faces a setback in the “Shake It Off” copyright case, Spotify and Kobalt spar over Eminem’s music, and much more.
THE BIG STORY: Miley Cyrus Sued For Posting … Herself?
Another week, another lawsuit against a music star who posted an Instagram photo of themselves.
Three months after Dua Lipa was sued for copyright infringement for allegedly posting a paparazzi photo of herself, the exact same photographer sued Miley Cyrus for allegedly doing the same thing. As with Lipa, Robert Barbera says Cyrus’s unauthorized use of the image “crippled if not destroyed” his ability to make any money from it.
Miley is the latest superstar to be hit with that kind of bizarre-sounding lawsuit. Over the last few years, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Emily Ratajkowski, LeBron James, Katy Perry and others have all faced similar cases, with photographers accusing them of infringing copyrights by reposting images of themselves.
For something that keeps happening over and over, it’s actually a pretty cut-and-dried legal issue: Photographers own the copyrights to the images that they take, and using those photos without a license constitutes infringement. Simply appearing in an image does not give a celebrity co-ownership of it, nor does it give them a right to repost it for free.
To the stars themselves, that must seem mighty unfair. The economic value of the image is ultimately derived from their presence, and many see the role of paparazzi as more akin to harassers than photojournalists. That’s essentially what Khloe Kardashian said on Twitter in 2018, after being hit with a similar lawsuit to the ones Cyrus and Lipa are now facing.
“They can legally stalk me and harass me and then on top of it all I can’t even use the pictures of myself they take LOL what the f— is this,” the reality star wrote at the time.
If history is any guide, the cases against Cyrus and Lipa will result in private settlements, likely sooner rather than later. Some celebs have fought back with arguments like “fair use”; when she was sued, Ratajkowski said she transformed an “exploitative image” into a critique of the “harassing and relentless behavior of paparazzi.” But those arguments are difficult to win – again, the law is pretty clear here – and the cost of doing so quickly eclipses the cost of a settlement.
To understand everything you need to know about these cases, go read our in-depth explainer.
Other top stories this week…
TAYLOR CAN’T DITCH ‘SHAKE IT OFF’ TRIAL – A federal judge refused one of Taylor Swift‘s last-ditch efforts to avoid a looming jury trial over accusations that she stole the lyrics to “Shake It Off,” denying her request to rethink a ruling last year that refused to toss the case. The ruling means the case, which claims the pop star lifted the song’s lyrics about “players” and “haters” from a 2001 track with similar words, is likely headed toward a January showdown in a Los Angeles federal courthouse.
PLOT THICKENS OVER DON HENLEY’S ‘STOLEN’ NOTES – Three men indicted for allegedly trying to profit from handwritten archival materials stolen from Eagles drummer and singer Don Henley fired back at the “baffling” charges , saying there’s just one small problem: The notes were never stolen in the first place. In their first response to the indictment, Glenn Horowitz, Craig Inciardi and Edward Kosinski said the notes had been sourced from a former Eagles biographer who has never been charged with a crime and has been promised by prosecutors that he won’t face any in the future. “If the People’s view is that [the biographer] is not a thief, the court should dismiss the Indictment in its entirety,” they wrote, before pointedly explaining that a crucial element of criminally possessing stolen property is that “the property being possessed was in fact stolen.”
DRAKE AND LEBRON SUED OVER HOCKEY DOCUMENTARY – The superstars were hit with a $10 million lawsuit over the underlying rights to an upcoming documentary they’re producing called Black Ice, about the history of Black players in professional ice hockey. In his complaint, Billy Hunter (the former longtime boss of the NBA players union) says he paid $265,000 for the film rights to a 2004 book that forms the basis for the soon-to-be-released documentary – but that he wasn’t involved in the production of the film.
IS EMINEM’S SUIT SPOTIFY’S PROBLEM, OR KOBALT’S? – A federal judge said there would be no quick decision on whether Spotify or Kobalt is ultimately on the hook in a lawsuit that claims Eminem’s music was streamed illegally “billions” of times on the platform. Spotify claims that the debacle is all Kobalt’s fault since the company signed a licensing deal that seemed to cover Eminem’s songs. But Judge Aleta Trauger said that crucial question wouldn’t be answered any time soon, agreeing that Kobalt should be allowed to retain expert witnesses to help prove that it’s not liable by analyzing the “unique backdrop of the music publishing industry.”
RICKY MARTIN STRIKES BACK – Months after the singer’s nephew made legal accusations that he and Martin dated for several months, the singer filed a $20 million lawsuit that claimed his younger relative had tried to “assassinate” his reputation. Martin’s complaint said he was being “persecuted, besieged, harassed, stalked and extorted by a maladjusted person whose interest is to obtain an economic benefit.”
CHRIS BROWN COPYRIGHT FIGHT ENDS – Braindon Cooper and Timothy Valentine, a pair of songwriters who sued Chris Brown and Drake for copyright infringement over Brown’s 2019 single “No Guidance,” agreed to drop the entire case as part of a confidential settlement. The deal came five months after they dismissed the accusations against Drake. This is the same case in which Brown and Drake argued they’d never heard the little-known song they allegedly copied – after which Cooper and Valentine called that argument “egotistical.”
FEDS SEIZE KELLY’S JAIL MONEY TO PAY VICTIMS – While R. Kelly’s child pornography trial in Chicago continued, a New York federal judge ruled that prosecutors could seize more than $27,000 held by the disgraced singer in his prison funds account. Following his conviction on racketeering and sex trafficking charges, the government had argued that the jail money should be made available to start paying fines and restitution to those victims. Last week the judge agreed, saying there was “no dispute” that federal statutes authorized prosecutors to use it for those purposes.
PANDORA BEATS PLAYLIST PATENT CASE – A federal judge says Pandora won’t have to face a patent lawsuit that the streamer called a “shakedown,” ruling that the supposedly proprietary playlist technology was so basic that it shouldn’t have been patented in the first place. A company called Bluebonnet had accused Pandora of infringing patents that allow users to generate playlists based on their preferences, but the judge said that was just an “abstract idea” that couldn’t be patented: “These claims may capture the core of a good business idea,” the judge wrote, but they “lack an inventive concept—and are therefore invalid.”