CHICAGO (CN) – A ballad written for a Ukrainian waitress cannot support copyright claims over the 1985 Elton John song “Nikita,” the 7th Circuit ruled.
In 1982, while working on a Russian cruise ship, Guy Hobbs composed a song called “Natasha” inspired by his love affair with a waitress. The song describes an impossible love between a Western man and Ukrainian woman during the Cold War.
Hobbs copyrighted his work and sent it to several music publishing companies, including Big Pig Music. The song was not published.
With Big Pig Music as his publisher, Elton John and his collaborator, Bernard Taupin, released “Nikita” in 1985. The song, included on John’s “Ice on Fire” album, hit No. 3 on the U.K. Singles Chart and No. 7 in the United States.
Hobbs claims he first saw the lyrics to John’s “Nikita” while perusing a song book in 2001 and was stricken by its similarity to his own song. He filed suit in April 2012, alleging violations of the Copyright Act and Illinois law.
U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve noted that the two songs share a similar title and theme. Both describe a woman’s pale eyes, reference sending correspondence in the mail, and repeat the phrases, “you’ll never know,” “you will never know,” “to hold you,” and “I need you.”
Nonetheless, she found Hobbs failed to show “Natasha” contained a “unique combination” of elements that “Nikita” infringed.
The 7th Circuit affirmed Wednesday, pointing out that Hobbs’s argument ignores two fundamental principles of copyright law.
“First, the Copyright Act does not protect general ideas, but only the particular expression of an idea,” Judge Daniel Manion wrote for the three-judge panel.
“Second, even at the level of particular expression, the Copyright Act does not protect ‘incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic.'”
Similarities in the songs “at the level of expression” are too commonplace to support an infringement claim. Moreover, the songs “simply ‘tell different stories.'”
“Natasha” is about a brief, romantic encounter, while “Nikita” tells of a man who “sees and loves a woman from afar,” Manion wrote.
“We conclude that as a matter of law ‘Natasha’ and ‘Nikita’ are not ‘substantially similar’ because they do not ‘share enough unique features to give rise to a breach of the duty not to copy another’s work,'” he added.
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