Written By: Travis Swallow
In today’s music industry, more and more artists are working together to produce music. The percentage of music released as a collaboration has doubled over the last ten years with most of that increase happening in the last three years. While artists may be looking to work together more frequently, the legal disputes surrounding the copyrights of those collaborations seems to be increasing too.
Copyright protection applies to original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated. This statutory definition of a copyright is very broad and essentially applies to any original work that has been documented in a tangible format. When working together as collaborators, artists create what is known as a joint work. The authors of a joint work are co-owners of copyright in the work.
But what happens when the collaborators finish their project? Can the artists take unused ideas from the collaboration and apply them to their own new songs and albums? Can they reference portions of the completed collaboration in their own work? Artists confront these questions regularly.
Take the recent dispute between Melissa Jefferson, otherwise known as Lizzo, and brothers Justin and Jeremiah Raisen. In early 2017, Lizzo, the Raisen brothers, and other co-collaborators had worked together to write and record a song called Healthy in anticipation of an upcoming album. Jesse Saint John, who was also a collaborator on Healthy, suggested the group incorporate the line, “I just took a DNA test turns out I’m a hundred percent that bitch,” after discovering the phrase in a tweet. The phrase was added to the song but Healthy was never released.
In September 2017, after the completion of Healthy, Lizzo wrote and released her single, Truth Hurts. Lizzo chose to include the same phrase in Truth Hurts and credited both Mina Lioness (the author of the tweet) and Jesse Saint John as contributors. She did not, however, include the Raisen brothers in the credits. By the end of 2019, Truth Hurts had earned Lizzo the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 list, one Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance and two other nominations, and would go on to win the 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards’ Song of the Year.
Lizzo filed a claim for declaratory relief requesting the court to declare that the Raisen brothers along with most of the other collaborators on Healthy had no ownership rights in the song Truth Hurts. The Raisen’s filed a counterclaim alleging that they were entitled to a portion of Lizzo’s profits as joint authors. The court dismissed the Raisens’ counterclaim for failing to allege facts indicating that Healthy was the first step of the collaborators in the process of writing Truth Hurts.
This case is only one example of the legal issues resulting from collaborations. With the numbers of collaborations on the rise, artists must also keep in mind the potential issues that may follow closely behind.
 Nuttiiya Seekhao, How Music Collaborations Evolved in the Digital Era: A Decade in Review, Beats & Bytes: Data Dives Blog (Jan. 10, 2020), https://blog.chartmetric.com/the-evolving-role-of-music-artist-collaborations/ [https://perma.cc/9XVG-XEBX].
 17 U.S.C. §102.
 17 U.S.C. §101.
 17 U.S.C. §201.
 Ashley Cullins, ‘Truth Hurts’ Suit Against Lizzo Dismissed by Judge, Billboard (Aug. 15, 2020), https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/9435044/truth-hurts-lawsuit-lizzo-dismissed [https://perma.cc/M7AY-ACQV].
 Mina Lioness (@MinaLioness), Twitter (Feb. 24, 2017, 8:34 PM), https://twitter.com/MinaLioness/status/ 835347243020451840 [https://perma.cc/T67Y-5RNJ].
 Billboard Hot 100, Billboard (week ending Sept. 7, 2019), https://www.billboard.com/charts/hot-100/2019-09-07 [https://perma.cc/6B9F-TUKJ].
 2020 GRAMMY Awards: Complete Winners & Nominations List, Grammy Awards (Nov. 20, 2019 5:39 AM), https://www.grammy.com/grammys/news/2020-grammy-awards-nominations-complete-winners-list [https://perma.cc/GVW3-DQ4Z].
 Taylor Fields, 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards Winners: See the Full List, iHeartRadio (Sept. 8, 2020), https://news.iheart.com/featured/iheartradio-music-awards/content/2020-09-08-2020-iheartradio-music-awards-winners-see-the-full-list/ [https://perma.cc/WV7S-3D3M].
 Jefferson v. Raisen, No. CV 19-9107, slip op. at 1 (C.D.C.A. Aug. 14, 2020).
 Id. at 2.
 Id. at 6.