Claim of the week from Taylor Swift that “Shake It Off” was “completely written by me” is just the latest twist in a copyright case that’s been brewing for more than five years now, pitting the superstar against two little-known songwriters in a battle over the lyrics to one of her biggest hits.
The suit was filed back in 2017 and claims that Taylor lifted her lyrics for “Shake It Off” about “players gonna play” and “haters gonna hate” from a 2001 song called “Playas Gon’ Play” by the group 3LWwhich included similar wording about “players” and “haters”.
If you have lost track of the matter, don’t feel too bad. In half a decade of litigation, the “Shake It Off” trial has already seen dozens of decisions, several key rulings and a high-profile reversal by an appeals court, all without ever reaching a jury trial or a final ruling on the charges .
To catch you on the move, here’s everything you need to know about Taylor’s long legal battle over “Shake It Off.”
What is Taylor accused of doing wrong?
In September 2017, songwriters Sean Hall and Nathan Butler filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Swift, Big Machine Records, Sony Music Publishing and others involved with “Shake It Off”, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 2014 and ultimately spent 50 weeks on the chart.
In their complaint, Hall and Butler accused Swift of stealing the central lyrics from their “Playas Gon’ Play,” a song released by R&B group 3LW in 2001 that eventually reached No. 81 on the Hot 100. The song also appeared on MTV’s then ubiquitous Total request live music video countdown.
In Hall and Butler’s song, the line was “playas, they gonna play, and haters, they gonna hate”; in Swift’s track, she sings, “Because the players will play, play, play, play, play, and the haters will hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” In their complaint, the duo said Swift’s lyrics were clearly copied from their song.
“Defendants knew or should have known that “Playas Gon’ Play” could not be used in a musical work by Defendants without a license and/or songwriting credit, as is customary standard practice in the music industry,” Hall and Butler wrote.
Read Hall and Butler’s full legal complaint HERE.
How did Taylor react to the trial?
Swift’s lawyers quickly shot back that the lawsuit was “fundamentally flawed” and should be dismissed, arguing that the short snippet of lyrics wasn’t creative or unique enough to be covered by copyright. They cited more than a dozen previous songs that had used similar phrases, including 1997’s “Playa Hater” by Notorious BIG and 1999’s “Don’t Hate the Player” by Ice-T.
A few months later, a federal judge agreed with those arguments. Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald ruled in February 2018 that American popular culture had been “heavily steeped in the concepts of gamers, haters, and gamer-haters” back in 2001, and that no single artist could claim a monopoly on such concepts.
“It’s hardly surprising [Hall and Butler]hoping to convey the notion that one should carry on regardless of the thoughts or actions of others, focused on both gamers who game and haters who hate, when several recent popular songs had each addressed the topics of gamers, haters, and gamer haters,” wrote the judge at the time. “In short, it’s simply not enough to combine two truisms about playas and haters, both well-worn notions from 2001.”
Read the full ruling HERE.
Why is the case still going on several years later?
In 2019, a federal appeals court—the Ninth Circuit—overturned Judge Fitzgerald’s decision and revived Hall and Butler’s lawsuit against Swift. The appeals court ruled that the judge had thrown out the case prematurely and that “Playas Gon’ Play” had cleared the relatively low threshold for copyright protection.
Back in Judge Fitzgerald’s lower court, Swift’s lawyers moved again to end the case. They asked the judge to grant her so-called summary judgment – an immediate ruling that she had not infringed any copyright. But in December the judge refused to do so.
“While there are some noticeable differences between the works, there are also significant similarities in wording and sequence/structure,” the judge wrote at the time.
The December decision set the stage for a trial in which a jury will decide whether the lyrics to “Shake It Off” infringed on the lyrics to “Playas Gon’ Play.” After the ruling, Hall and Butler’s attorney said the songwriters “finally moved closer to the justice they so richly deserve.”
What comes next?
Currently, Taylor’s lawyers are trying their best to avoid that lawsuit. In December they have asked Judge Fitzgerald to reconsider his decision, calling the decision to let the case go to trial “unprecedented” and warning that it could “cheat the public domain.” Hall and Butler’s lawyers fired back in Januaryand claimed that Swift’s lawyers were “recycling old arguments” and simply “unhappy” with the prospect of a lawsuit.
This week, Swift’s team again asked Judge Fitzgerald to decide the case without the help of a jury, arguing that months of discovery in the case had revealed other “fatal flaws” in the charges. Among other things, they said it was now clear that Taylor had never heard the song – a key requirement in any copyright case.
That argument is therefore also Taylor’s filed his own sworn statement in the casewhich clearly stated that “the first time I ever heard the song” was after the suit was filed: “Until I learned of the plaintiffs’ claim in 2017, I had never heard the song Playas Gon’ Play and had never heard of that song or group 3LW,” the star wrote, adding that her parents “didn’t let me watch TRL until I was about 13 years old.”
If Swift’s motion is denied, a trial will take place at some point in the future; no date has yet been set.
Read Taylor’s full statement HERE.
What happens if Taylor loses?
Back in December, Judge Fitzgerald said Swift and her legal team will have a “strong closing argument” when the case is presented to jurors, and legal experts who chatted with Billboard generally agree that Swift is the favorite to ultimately win the case.
But jury trials are notoriously difficult to predict, especially when it comes to music copyright—a scenario that asks untrained citizens to weigh a complex mix of legal concepts and subjective listening. Most court observers initially expected Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to defeat accusations that they ripped “Blurred Lines” from Marvin Gaye‘Got To Give It Up’ but the pairing of superstars famously lost at trial in 2015.
If she loses, Taylor and the other defendants will likely have to pay substantial damages as well as ongoing royalties from the song. In the “Blurred Lines” case, Thicke, Pharrell and several other defendants were eventually ordered to pay just under $5 million in damages to Gaye’s family, plus a lucrative 50 percent royalty going forward.