Future Resoundingly Wins Copyright Infringement Lawsuit — Judge Declares ‘Frequently Utilized Techniques in Popular Songwriting’ Are Not Copyrightable

Future copyright infringement
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Future copyright infringement
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Photo Credit: Frank Schwichtenberg / CC by 4.0

Future’s legal team wins a copyright infringement lawsuit brought against him in 2021, as the judge cites Biggie, Wu-Tang, Neil Young, and Kanye in her ruling against copyrighting ‘frequently utilized techniques in popular songwriting.’

On Friday, Judge Martha M. Pacold of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed a copyright infringement lawsuit brought against rapper Future in 2021.

The lawsuit claimed that Future’s 2018 track, “What I Think About It,” rips off an earlier song by a little-known Virginia rapper. The judge said in her ruling that the plaintiff was trying to sue over lyrics synonymous with hip-hop.

“The thematic elements that (both songs) address — guns, money, and jewelry — are frequently present in hip-hop and rap music,” writes Judge Pacold, citing examples including Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me),” Biggie’s “Machine Gun Funk,” and Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.”

“As defendants argue, the commonality of these themes in hip-hop and rap place the (themes) outside the protections of copyright law,” the judge writes. “Where elements of a work are indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic, they receive no protection.”

DaQuan Robinson and his legal team initially sued Future, whose real name is Nayvadius Wilburn, in 2021, alleging that Future’s song, “When I Think About It,” infringed on Robinson’s earlier track, “When U Think About It,” a draft of which they claim to have emailed to Future’s producer a year before the release of the supposedly infringing song.

Both songs share similar themes, and the phrase, “when I/you think about it,” which the judge ruled was a fragmentary expression “commonplace in everyday speech and ubiquitous in popular music.” The judge cited an earlier decision by a separate court that dismissed a lawsuit against Kanye West over the lyrics, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” in his 2007 song, “Stronger.”

Judge Pacold ruled that even if Future did copy Robinson’s song, it still wouldn’t change the decision because the material he allegedly borrowed was not covered by copyright protections in the first place.

“None of the elements Robinson has identified in ‘When U Think About It’ (are) protectable,” writes the judge, who asserts that Robinson’s claims that Future copied his use of a “core lyric” to convey the song’s message is moot because the concept of core lyrics is a songwriting technique and not a protectable element of the work.

To this end, the judge references Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1970 hit, “Our House.”

“The core lyric, ‘our house is a very, very, very fine house,’ is used to support the entire rest of the song, which uses the house and its constituent elements as the setting for the narrator’s relationship,” writes Pacold.

“This songwriting technique is not unique to Robinson, nor mid-century Canadian-American bands that feature intricate vocal harmonies. The mere use of a ‘core lyric’ to support a song’s storyline is not a protectable element because it is a frequently utilized technique in popular songwriting.”

Robinson and his legal team can appeal the ruling to a federal appeals court. Judge Pacold will not allow Robinson to file an updated version of his case, as “amendment would be futile because the relevant songs and their lyrics cannot change.”