Does the unauthorized use of a common phrase from a copyrighted musical composition on t-shirts constitute copyright infringement? U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams recently addressed that question in Roberts v. Gordy et al., Case No. 13-24700 (Southern District of Florida).
The groundwork for this litigation was laid in 2006 when rapper Rick Ross co-wrote, recorded and released a musical composition entitled Hustlin’ on his debut album Port of Miami. The chorus of Hustlin’ includes the repeated use of the phrase “everyday I’m hustlin’.” That phrase became widely associated with Ross.
In 2011, the musical duo LMFAO released Party Rock Anthem. Party Rock Anthem includes the phrase “everyday I’m shufflin’” as part of the chorus. Party Rock Anthem was enormously popular, reaching number one on music charts in numerous countries around the globe. The song has also been licensed for films, television programs, video games, and advertisements. LMFAO also launched a clothing line that features the phrase on t-shirts and other clothing items.
Ross and the co-writers of Hustlin’, who believed that Party Rock Anthem was an unauthorized derivative work because it allegedly used a qualitatively distinct, important and original portion of Hustlin’, filed a copyright infringement action against LMFAO and several other defendants. LMFAO sought dismissal of the copyright infringement claim.
The central issue in the case was whether the use of the three-word phrase “everyday I’m shufflin,” a variation of a phrase appearing in a copyrighted musical composition, and subsequently printed on merchandise, constituted copyright infringement. The District Court did not believe so.
In ruling in favor of Defendants, the Court reiterated that copyright protection does not automatically extend to every component of a copyrighted work. The Court also reminded us that words and short phrases are generally not copyrightable. Another factor that cut against the Plaintiffs was that the phrase “everyday I’m hustlin’ did not even originate with Ross. Further, Plaintiffs failed to address whether there was substantial similarity (a requirement for copyright infringement) between the phrase and LMFAO’s t-shirts. Judge Williams summed up her decision by stating “that the phrase “everyday I’m shufflin’,” printed on t-shirts, standing alone, and divorced from any musical composition, does not constitute an infringement on the musical composition Hustlin’.