Hobbs v. John

Summarized by:

  • Court: Intellectual Property Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Copyright, Infringement
  • Date Filed: 07-17-2013
  • Case #: No. 12–3652
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit
  • LexisNexis Citation: 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 14401
  • Westlaw Citation: 2013 WL 3717764
  • Full Text Opinion

Peters v. West precluded a "unique combination" theory, in which elements which were not entitled to protection individually became a unique expression when placed in a certain combination with each other.

Opinion (Manion): In 1982 Guy Hobbs ("Hobbs") wrote the song "Natasha" while working as a crusie ship photographer. Hobbs copyrighted the song in 1983 and sent it to several publishers including Big Pig Ltd. ("Big Pig"). In 1985, Elton John "John" released a song entitled "Nikita" through Big Pig. "Nikita" was highly successful. In 2001, Hobbs learned of "Nikita" and believed that John along with his partner Bernard Taupin "Taupin" had violated his copyright for "Natasha" because "Nikita" was substantially similar. Hobbs filed in federal court in 2012 claiming copyright infringement under the 1976 Copyright Act. Hobbs identified several elements of both songs that he believed were substantially similar. The district court concluded that the elements identified by Hobbs were not entitled to protection individually. Hobbs also argued a "unique combination" theory, in which the elements which were not entitled to protection individually became a unique expression when placed in a certain combination with each other and subsequently entitled to protection. The district court considered the argument before concluding that Peters v. West precluded the "unique combination" theory. The district also concluded that even if the theory was allowed the songs were not substantially similar. On appeal, Hobbs challenged the district courts' findings that the songs were not substantially similar. The appeals court determined to make a valid claim for copyright infringement the plaintiff must prove the ownership of a valid copyright and unauthorized copying of constituent elements of the original work. Both sides agreed that Hobbs had a valid copyright for "Natasha "in 1983, but the court found that "Nikita" and "Natasha" were not substantially similar. The court reasoned that Hobbs argument failed on two basic principles of copyright law: (1) the copyright act does not protect general ideas, but only the particular expression of an idea; and (2) even at the level of particular expression of an idea, 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 topic." As a result, the district court's decision to dismiss the case was AFFIRMED.

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