Taking a DNA Test on Pop Music: Lizzo’s Long Year of IP Disputes

Matthew Loy

The recording artist Lizzo has had a busy year. She released a best-selling album, launched an international tour, and is hotly tipped as a contender for multiple Grammy nominations later this month, including Best New Artist. On top of all that—and perhaps this is the true sign of a musician on the rise—Lizzo has found herself embroiled in several IP disputes, each of which showcases nuanced questions about musical creativity and credit.

First, three songwriters who worked with Lizzo in 2017 claim that they are owed writing credits and a share of the profits on “Truth Hurts,” a single on Lizzo’s album Cuz I Love You that reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 earlier this year. The writers, Justin Rothman and brothers Jeremiah and Justin Raisen, claim that the melody and a particular lyric in “Truth Hurts” are lifted from a never-released demo that they wrote and produced with Lizzo several years before her breakthrough, and that they are thus owed a writing credit and royalties on “Truth Hurts.”[1] Lizzo disagrees: late last month, she filed a lawsuit in the Central District of California seeking declaratory judgment that the writers have no ownership rights in the song.[2] (The complaint can be found at: https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/TruthHurtsLizzo-COMPLAINT.pdf.)

About the particular lyric in dispute: it’s the iconic second line of the song, starting with “I just took a DNA test,” and Lizzo, the Raisens, and Rothman all acknowledge that they didn’t write it. That honor—as detailed in a fascinating and painstaking timeline of the “Truth Hurts” controversy prepared by Marc Hogan and Noah Yoo of the music criticism site Pitchfork—goes to Mina Lioness, a British singer-songwriter who tweeted the line in February 2017.[3] 

I did a DNA test and found out I'm 100% that bitch.

— Long Jevetina (@MinaLioness) February 25, 2017

Lioness’s tweet (which she wrote as a riff on a tweet by the recording artist Demi Lovato about the results of an Ancestry.com test) went viral as a meme.[4] During the songwriting process for the demo that predated “Truth Hurts,” someone—Lizzo, the Raisens, or Rothman—discovered the “I just took a DNA test” meme on social media and incorporated it into the song that sits at the heart of the complaint filed by Lizzo last month. If Lizzo’s suit goes to trial, it could address complicated questions about when a similarity between two melodies gives rise to infringement, and whether the recycling of the lyric in “Truth Hurts”—a lyric that, again, neither Lizzo nor the defendant songwriters created—supports the demo songwriters’ claim. Lizzo belatedly granted Lioness, who is not named in the complaint, a writing credit on “Truth Hurts” last month.[5]

Even as the dispute over “Truth Hurts” heats up, Lizzo finds herself with a second copyright challenge on her hands. Last month, the singer-songwriter CeCe Peniston alleged that snippets of another song on Lizzo’s album, “Juice,” were lifted from Peniston’s 1991 song “Finally.”[6] Peniston presented samples of each song for comparison in an Instagram post.

      View this post on Instagram

@bendaworld sent me this video and this is a clear example of #copyrightinfringement Cece Peniston versus @lizzobeeating y’all check this out and btw I love her music #tbt #juice #absolutvodka #finally #thetea #royalties #atlanticrecords #umpg #lizzo #lizzojuice #intellectualproperty ...video contains footage from @absolute_vodka

A post shared by Cece Peniston (@cecepeniston) on Oct 17, 2019 at 10:43am PDT

The allegation turns (as far as this tone-deaf law student can tell) on two elements: the backbeat in Lizzo’s “Juice” versus the backbeat in Peniston’s “Finally,” and the use in both songs of the ad-lib phrase “ya ya.” It remains to be seen whether Peniston will file an infringement suit. Whatever one thinks about Peniston’s claim after listening to the samples, one has to admire the wonderful bluntness of Peniston and/or her social media manager in tagging the Instagram post with “#copyrightinfringement” and “#royalties.”

Without commenting on the merits of either matter, it is worth reflecting on how unremarkable these claims seem today. After highly-publicized disputes in the past several years over Pharrell and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (resulting in a $5 million award for Marvin Gaye’s estate), Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (resulting in a $2.8 million judgment), and Miley Cyrus’s “Can’t Stop” (covered earlier this year in JLA Beat: https://journals.library.columbia.edu/index.php/lawandarts/announcement/view/115), the playbook for pop music copyright infringement claims is well developed. Given the wealth of sources that musicians draw on, it seems almost inevitable that more high-profile claims of this nature are to come. For now, the question is whether Lizzo’s suit ends in a settlement—or whether the District Court will carry out its own DNA test on the genesis of “Truth Hurts.”

 

[1] Bethonie Butler, Who Wrote Lizzo’s ‘Truth Hurts’? Breaking Down the Complicated Drama, Wash. Post (Oct. 29, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2019/10/21/who-wrote-lizzos-truth-hurts-breaking-down-complicated-songwriter-drama/.

[2] Christi Carras, Lizzo fires back in songwriting dispute, files lawsuit alleging harassment, L.A. Times (Oct. 23, 2019), https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2019-10-23/lizzo-truth-hurts-raisen-lawsuit.

[3] Marc Hogan & Noah Yoo, Who Wrote Lizzo’s ‘Truth Hurts’? Who Knows?, Pitchfork (Oct. 30, 2019), https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/who-wrote-lizzos-truth-hurts-who-knows/.

[4] Sharine Taylor, The singer-songwriter getting a writing credit for Lizzo’s ‘Truth Hurts’ speaks out, Fader (Oct. 28, 2019), https://www.thefader.com/2019/10/28/mina-lioness-lizzo-song-writer-truth-hurts-credit-interview.

[5] Assoc. Press, Lizzo extends the writing credits for her hit ‘Truth Hurts’ (Oct. 23, 2019), https://apnews.com/be82fe9345dc4fdc97312b34072f3936.

[6] Rania Aniftos, CeCe Peniston Accuses Lizzo of Copyright Infringement, Billboard (Oct. 18, 2019), https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/8533575/cece-peniston-lizzo-copyright-infringement.