There’s more than one way to croon in a love song about an impossible romance with a Russian muse, a Chicago appeals court says. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has affirmed a lower court’s decision dismissing a copyright infringement claim against Sir Elton John and writing partner Bernie Taupin, finding their song Nikita differed from the tune Natasha by songwriter Guy Hobbs.
Hobbs says he based his 1982 composition on a brief love affair he had with a Russian waitress while working on a cruise ship. He sought to get the song published by submitting it to several music publishers, including Big Pig Music Ltd. He was unsuccessful. But in 2001 he heard John perform Nikita, which was registered for copyright by Big Pig and Hobbs saw infringement on his copyrighted Natasha.
He first sought compensation from John and Taupin, listed on their song’s copyright application, then sued, asking for a constructive trust and an accounting. Hobbs identified elements found in both songs that he claimed were substantially similar, including: 1) a theme of impossible love between a Western man and a Communist woman during the Cold War; 2) repetition of the beloved’s name, the word “never,” and the phrases “to hold you,” and “I need you,” and some form of “you will never know”; and 3.) A title of one word, phonetically similar title, consisting of a three-syllable female Russian name, both beginning with the letter “N” and ending with the letter “A.”
A district court ruled in favor of John and Taupin, finding no substantial similarities between the two songs; the appellate court agreed.
The upper level judges followed established principles in copyright law that neither general ideas nor scenes a faire are subject to protection. Further they said the general idea of an impossible love affair within both songs was expressed differently. And while they said other elements cited by Hobbs were similar, they found, in fact, that they were dissimilar in decisive ways. The court saw as rudimentary, commonplace, standard or unavoidable in a popular love song such practices as similarities in title and repetition in lyrics. The appellate court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding as a matter of law that Natasha and Nikita were 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.”
In case the song doesn’t ring any bells: