Could Juice WRLD's Yellowcard Lawsuit Be Rap's "Blurred Lines?"
In a post-"Blurred Lines" world, popular songs are more susceptible to litigation. Will Juice WRLD face a similar outcome?
Juice WRLD reportedly only owns 15 percent of his hit single "Lucid Dreams" after Sting allegedly threatened to sue him for interpolating "Shape of My Heart." Now, all — or a portion — of that remaining 15 could go to Yellowcard. On Tuesday (October 22), news broke that the defunct pop-punk band are suing the Chicago rapper over similarities between "Lucid Dreams" and their 2006 track "Holly Wood Died." The group is seeking $15 million in damages, co-ownership of "Lucid Dreams," and a cut of the song's royalties.
The suit alleges that Juice WRLD was aware of the song and the album it came from, Lights and Sounds, because it was produced by Neal Avron, who also produced Fall Out Boy's major label debut album From Under The Cork Tree. Juice WRLD has spoken on Fall Out Boy's influence on his music. But what will likely serve as the group's primary defense is the claim that both tracks use a "melodic idiosyncrasy," also known as a "melisma." (The term is defined as "the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession...in which each syllable of text is matched to a single note.")
"The Infringing Work and Infringing Sound Recording directly misappropriates quantitatively and qualitatively important portions of Plaintiffs' Original Work in a manner that is easily recognizable to the ordinary observer. The Infringing Work and Infringing Sound Recording are not only substantially similar to the Original Work, but in some places virtually identical," the complaint reads.
The complaint is accurate in stating that there are "easily recognizable" similarities between the songs, most notably the triplet delivery Juice WRLD and Yellowcard lead vocalist Ryan Key employ in their respective verses. Their deliveries are rhythmically similar, and the melismatic style of the verses is indicative in the way every word sung has a different note from the other. Those similarities are made even more apparent because their tempos are similar too ("Lucid Dreams" is 84 beats per minute while "Holly Wood Died" is 87).
In a post-"Blurred Lines" world, Yellowcard's case has a chance. What makes this lawsuit notable though is that it's not an issue of unauthorized sampling, as is often the case with rap and copyright lawsuits. Instead, it's reminiscent of when George Harrison was found guilty of stealing musical elements from the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" for his song "My Sweet Lord" in 1976. The case is considered a landmark ruling in music copyright law, having introduced the phrase "subconscious plagiarism" — otherwise known as "cryptomnesia."
"Cryptomnesia occurs when someone claims to have had an original thought (or in the case of a song, a melody or beat) but actually encountered the notion or sound earlier and forgot about it," Steph Yin wrote in a New York Times piece titled, "The Accidental Plagiarist in All of Us."
In Harrison's case, the judge ruled that even though the Beatles lead guitarist didn't mean to, he still took notable parts from "He's So Fine" and incorporated them into "My Sweet Lord."
"Did Harrison deliberately use the music of 'He's So Fine'? I do not believe he did so deliberately," Richard Owen, the judge who presided over the case, said at the time. "Nevertheless, it is clear that 'My Sweet Lord' is the very same song as 'He's So Fine' with different words, and Harrison had access to 'He's So Fine.' This is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished."
Harrison's case resurfaced almost four decades in 2014. The family of the late Marvin Gaye filed a suit against Robin Thicke, alleging that the latter's "Blurred Lines" copied the "feel" and "sound" of the former's "Got to Give it Up." Despite Gaye's family only possessing the copyright to the sheet music (and not the actual recording), the studio arrangements for both songs were factored in during the trial, and everything from alleged similarities between bass lines and cowbell accents were examined.
Ultimately, the jury sided with Gaye's family, resulting in them winning $5.3 million in damages and 50 percent running royalties. (It's worth noting that cases like Williams v. Gaye rarely get to a jury because they're normally settled out of court, and that Thicke's contradictory testimony about the creation of "Blurred Lines" — as well as testimony from Gaye musicologist and expert witness Judith Finell — influenced the jury's decision.)
Artists, as well as musicologists and music theory experts, spoke unfavorably on the landmark ruling after it happened.
"The 'Blurred Lines' ruling actually encourages litigation from the copyright holders of old hits, most of whom are publishing companies, rather than individual artists," music theory expert Dan Bogosian told Flavorwire in 2015. "...the court has put musicians on a slippery slope into the dangerous waters of conscious homage vs. full-blown ripoff."
Juice could be rap's Harrison and Thicke.
Rap's rap sheet as it pertains to copyright lawsuits has primarily — if not always — been centered on more tangible points. When De La Soul was sued by the Turtles in 1991 (another landmark case that changed the future of sampling in hip-hop), there was something concrete and direct the band could reference (the Turtles' song "You Showed Me" being featured on the 3 Feet High and Rising interlude skit "Transmitting Live From Mars)."
Juice has vocalized that "Lucid Dreams" owes itself to Sting's "Shape of My Heart," which is sampled throughout the entirety of the former song. Yellowcard's has no overt sample to rely on, but instead a feel and sound. This is likely why the band's defense makes note of Juice's appreciation for "emo pop rock" — "the precise genre of Yellowcard's music," a part of the complaint reads — as well as his music being defined as "emo rap" and him being identified as "emo rap ambassador." During their trial against Thicke and Pharrell, the Gaye family referenced prior interviews from the former, where he said "Got to Give It Up" was one of his favorite songs and he wanted to "make something like that, something with that groove."
Although Juice hasn't ever explicitly mentioned Yellowcard as an influence, the band is trying to build their case into something more tangible by highlighting this emo connection between themselves and Juice. If they're successful, "Lucid Dreams" will basically no longer be Juice's song. It may also entice other defining aughts-era emo bands to capitalize off other notable rappers similar to Juice.
"The verdict handicaps any creator out there who is making something that might be inspired by something else," Pharrell told The Financial Times in 2015, the first time he had addressed the ruling since it was announced.
Whether he was inspired by Yellowcard or not, Juice could — and most likely will — end up paying for it.