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You Can't Copyright the 'Cliches of Hip Hop Gangsterism'

By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 16, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Drug-dealing, guns, money, and vengeance have become part of the urban narrative. So have phrases like "yo, where's my money at," "let's keep it popping," and "the strong take from the weak but the smart take from everybody."

According to a recent unpublished opinion from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, such themes are "either common in general or common with respect to hip hop culture, and do not enjoy copyright protection." That's good news for 50 Cent, who was the defendant in this copyright dispute.

In 2007 and 2008, Shadrach Winstead dictated his book, "The Preacher's Son -- But the Streets Turned Me Into a Gangster" and gave the audiotapes to someone to transcribe. Prior to publication of the book, Curtis Jackson got a copy.

Curtis Jackson, of course, is better known as rapper 50 Cent. (Sidebar: The appellate panel hedged in a footnote that "Jackson is perhaps better known as '50 Cent.'" Perhaps? Try per-sure.) On Dec. 17, 2010, Winstead sued 50 Cent for copyright infringement, claiming that 50's album and film "Before I Self-Destruct" derived their contents from, and infringed the copyright of, his book.

The district court dismissed Winstead's suit for failure to state a claim, concluding that Jackson and the other defendants did not improperly copy protected aspects of the book. Last week, the Third Circuit affirmed the district court.

The Third Circuit noted that not all copying is copyright infringement. Even if actual copying is proven, a court must decide, by comparing the allegedly infringing work with the original work, whether the copying was unlawful. A court compares the allegedly infringing work with the original work, and considers whether a "lay observer" would believe that the copying was of protectable aspects of the copyrighted work

In this case, the appellate court concluded, "There was a failure to state an actionable claim for copyright infringement here because, although Winstead's book and Jackson's works share similar themes and setting, the story of an angry and wronged protagonist who turns to a life of violence and crime has long been a part of the public domain."

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