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Seventh Circuit: What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Rip Off Nietzsche

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Kanye West, Kelly Clarkson, and Nietzsche (figuratively) walk into the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Hilarity ensues.

The Seventh Circuit ruled this week that aspiring hip-hop artist Vince P. can't sue Kanye West for ripping off his song, because both West and P. were ripping off Nietzsche.

No, folks. We can't make this stuff up.

Vince P. was on the verge of hip-hop glory. He had written, recorded, and distributed a song entitled "Stronger." (Not to be confused with Britney Spears' song by the same name.) As Judge Diane Wood explains, "The song's title comes from a key line in its 'hook' (refrain or chorus). The line in turn draws from an aphorism coined by Friedrich Nietzsche: 'what does not kill me, makes me stronger.'"

Vince P., however, needed an executive producer, which led him to contact Kanye's business manager, John Monopoly. (Yes, that's the name in court records.)

P. sent Monopoly a disc containing a recording of Stronger, and even secured a meeting with Monopoly. Monopoly was apparently impressed, but Vince P. failed to secure the funding to win work with Monopoly.

Shortly thereafter, Kanye West released his own song called "Stronger."

(Sidebar: Kanye's "Stronger" samples electronic duo Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." Quick: Name five musical acts that haven't included the word "stronger" in a song title.)

West's song also features a hook that repeats the Nietzschean maxim, and -- according to Vince P. -- several other suspicious similarities. When West's reps refused to discuss the matter, Vince P. registered his version of "Stronger" and sued West for copyright infringement.

The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

Proving infringement of a copyright owner's exclusive right requires proof of "ownership of a valid copyright, and copying of constituent elements of the work that are original."

Guess which element Vince P. failed to prove.

Vince P. had a valid copyright registration for "Stronger (VP)." No one's questioning that. But there's the lingering issue of whether Kanye copied him.

In the Seventh Circuit, a plaintiff must prove that there's a substantial similarity between two works, which can be shown by evidence of access, actual copying, and improper appropriation.

While the Seventh Circuit agreed that Kanye had an opportunity to rip off Vince P.'s song, West ultimately prevailed with what shall be known as the Kelly Clarkson defense.

West argued that the ubiquity of the Nietzschean phrase, combined with its repeated use in other songs, like Clarkson's "(Stronger) What Doesn't Kill You" suggests that West's title and lyric do not infringe on Vince P's song.

Primarily due to lack of originality, the Seventh Circuit concluded that Vince P.'s copyright infringement claim failed as a matter of law.

So chill, Vince P. You don't hear Nietzsche's ghost whining about everyone ripping him off. That's because -- as the lyrics of the song you copyrighted would suggest -- what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

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