A US court last week dismissed a lawsuit that accused Sam Smith and Normani of ripping off an earlier song when they wrote their 2020 hit 'Dancing With A Stranger'.
The judge hearing the case concluded that Smith and Normani's song was not "substantially similar" to the one that they were accused of infringing, despite what experts hired by the plaintiffs might have concluded.
The earlier song was ‘Dancing With Strangers’, created by artist Jordan Vincent and producer Christopher Miranda and released in 2015. In the lawsuit they filed last year, they argued that - so clear were the similarities between the two songs - “it is beyond any real doubt that Smith, Normani and the other defendants copied plaintiff’s work”.
Legal reps for Smith and Normani were pretty scathing of the claims made in the lawsuit from the off. In an initial motion to dismiss, they said that Vincent and Miranda's lawsuit was “rambling” and “repetitive”. When the plaintiffs subsequently submitted an amended complaint, the Smith and Normani side declared it was "self-contradictory” and “nonsensical”.
It was Smith and Normani's motion for dismissal that judge Wesley L Hsu ruled on last week. In a lengthy judgement, he considered whether any of the elements shared by 'Dancing With A Stranger' and ‘Dancing With Strangers’ enjoyed copyright protection in isolation.
Concluding that they did not, he then scrutinised the argument put forward by Vincent and Miranda that - while each shared element may not in itself be protected by copyright - the way those elements were selected and arranged in ‘Dancing With Strangers’ was sufficiently original to enjoy copyright protection. And, they alleged, it was that selection and arrangement that Smith and Normani had copied.
Hsu noted that a "selection and arrangement copyright" is available under US law if -within any one “melodic phrase” - the otherwise unprotectable elements are “numerous enough and their selection and arrangement original enough that their combination constitutes an original work of authorship".
However, while 'Dancing With A Stranger' and ‘Dancing With Strangers’ might share the various standalone elements identified by Vincent and Miranda, did Smith and Normani arrange them in the same way, so that any possible 'selection and arrangement copyright' had been infringed?
No, ruled Hsu. "The ['Dancing With A Stranger'] melodic phrase is not substantially similar to the [‘Dancing With Strangers’] melodic phrase as a matter of law, despite plaintiff’s experts’ conclusory statements to the contrary", the judge declared.
So, while there might be grounds for saying that the key melodic phrase in ‘Dancing With Strangers’ identified by Vincent and Miranda is protected by copyright, it wasn't infringed on 'Dancing With A Stranger'.
The judge concluded: "Regardless of whether the [‘Dancing With Strangers’] melodic phrase is original and protectable ... the ['Dancing With A Stranger'] melodic phrase does not unlawfully appropriate it".
And with that in mind, Hsu granted Smith and Normani's motion for dismissal.