Katy Perry Wins ‘Dark Horse’ Trial, Calming Music Industry

By Lucas Shaw and Edvard Pettersson | March 18, 2020

Led Zeppelin’s win in a copyright infringement lawsuit over the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” is providing a boost to other songwriters and producers fighting similar allegations.

Katy Perry on Tuesday had a $2.8 million jury verdict thrown out that had found she ripped off elements of Christian rapper Flame’s 2008 track in her hit “Dark Horse.” The decision is a victory for songwriters worried about a growing risk of constant legal battles over their work.

“Dark Horse,” released in 2013 by Capitol Records, topped the U.S. music charts and was the second best-selling song worldwide in 2014.

U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder in Los Angeles followed in the footsteps of the Led Zeppelin decision in ruling that the fragments of the Flame song that Perry allegedly infringed weren’t original enough to warrant copyright protection. Snyder vacated the jury award in a post-trial ruling.

An eight-note sequence from Flame’s song “Joyful Noise” isn’t “a particularly unique or rare combination,” Snyder wrote.

The judge relied on a similar standard as an 11-judge panel of the federal appeals court in San Francisco did when it let stand a jury verdict in favor of Led Zeppelin. The Perry and Led Zeppelin rulings will likely allay songwriters’ and producers’ fears that any major or minor hit is at risk of being targeted with copyright infringement over the use of commonplace musical elements that have been used in previous works.

The number of lawsuits has grown since a court in 2015 ruled Robin Thicke and Pharrell stole from Marvin Gaye with their song “Blurred Lines,” and awarded Gaye’s estate $5 million.

Since then, Perry, Ed Sheeran and Juice WRLD have all been sued for copyright infringement, prompting the music industry to fret about a chilling effect. Most songs are in some way inspired by music that came before it, and there is a limited set of notes and combinations available.

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