Federal Judge Tosses Copyright Infringement Suit Filed Against Jay-Z, Timbaland, and Ginuwine by Soul Musician Ernie Hines

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A live performance from Ginuwine, who, along with Jay-Z and Timbaland, has scored a victory in a long-running copyright infringement battle. Photo Credit: Ralph Arvesen

A federal judge has officially tossed a copyright infringement suit filed by soul musician Ernie Hines against Warner Chappell, BMG, Jay-Z, Timbaland, and Ginuwine.

Judge J. Paul Oetken just recently granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgement in the years-running case, which centered on the alleged unauthorized use of 1969’s “Help Me Put Out the Flame (In My Heart)” in Jay-Z’s “Paper Chase” (1998) and in Ginuwine’s “Toe 2 Toe” (1999), both of which were co-written and produced by Timbaland.

To recap, 85-year-old Ernie Hines in the action specifically accused the defendants of lifting the guitar introduction from “Help Me Put Out the Flame” and then using it in their own works without authorization.

(Hines possesses the rights to the underlying composition but not the recording, according to filings submitted during the lengthy legal battle. Plus, the actual introduction wasn’t included in the deposit copy at the time of the initial copyright registration but was added via “a supplemental registration” in 2019, per the same filings.)

While each of the involved parties acknowledged that the relevant releases had incorporated components of Hines’ song sans permission, the defendants disputed whether the music in question could be copyrighted and whether its potential role in “Paper Chase” and “Toe 2 Toe” constituted infringement in any event.

On the former front, Warner Chappell and the other defendants claimed that the introduction was ineligible for copyright protection because it had itself allegedly derived from the public-domain “Mysterioso Pizzicato” (1914).

Multiple filings, musicologist reports, and years later, Judge Oetken has agreed with the determination, making clear in his order on the summary judgement motions that the “Help Me Put Out the Flame” introduction had borrowed “from a heavily used work that is in the public domain” and had added “only material that is not original enough to be copyrightable.”

“The Introduction’s additions of a single note and a single different rhythm – which is how Dr. Ferrara [the defendants’ musicologist] characterizes the Introduction’s contributions above and beyond MP – do not render the Introduction protectable,” the judge spelled out, further indicating that certain elements cited in Hines’ musicologist report pertained to the recording (not the composition) at hand.

Shifting to the “substantial similarity” side, the court also agreed with the defendants’ arguments about an overall lack of shared characteristics between their projects and the allegedly infringed work.

The introduction comprises approximately three percent of “Help Me Put Out the Flame,” Judge Oetken noted – a point that he believes “suggests a lack of quantitative significance.” Meanwhile, regarding the intro’s qualitative significance, the opening “is not repeated anywhere else in” the allegedly infringed song, and “its melody is unrelated to any other melody found” therein, per the legal text.

“Given the ubiquitous appearance of the notes in the Introduction in the public domain, as well as Hines’ minimal additions to those notes, no reasonable jury could find that the amount of copying here is sufficient to support a copyright infringement claim,” the judge concluded.