By Andy Malt | Published on Wednesday 14 March 2018
Miley Cyrus is being sued for copyright infringement over a line in her 2013 single ‘We Can’t Stop’. Although no figure for damages is listed in the lawsuit, lawyers representing her accuser, Jamaican dancehall
The dispute centres on a single line from ‘We Run Things’, a 1998 hit for Flourgon, real name Michael May. “We run things, things no run we”, he reckons, was lifted and turned into “We run things, things don’t run we” for ‘We Can’t Stop’.
As well as Cyrus, May is suing her label RCA and its parent company Sony Music, the song’s co-writers Rock City (Timothy Thomas and Theron Thomas) and Mike Will Made It, and Cyrus’s manager Larry Rudolph.
The lawsuit notes the popularity of ‘We Run Things’ within reggae and dancehall circles, both upon its release and to this
In fact, it adds, in an interview about their work on the Miley Cyrus track, Rock City spoke about how they had drawn upon that culture for the song, referencing the line “we run things, things no run we” as a simple part of that culture, rather than acknowledging that it came from a specific source.
This is important in establishing the argument that this is about more than simply nabbing a single line from a 30 year old song. The lawsuit notes that ‘We Can’t Stop’ was the song used to re-launch Cyrus as an “edgy” pop act, switching drastically from the clean cut Disney star she had been marketed as previously.
Cyrus borrowed heavily from Caribbean culture for her new image, says the lawsuit, with the lifted line a key part of that. In fact, it notes, the line is developed elsewhere in the song, showing its significance to the composition and her new image as a whole.
The lawsuit goes on to note just how successful this relaunch was, providing for Cyrus the kind of glowing biography artists would normally include for themselves.
The song is five times platinum in the US alone, its video broke numerous viewing records on Vevo and YouTube, and Cyrus performs it during almost every live show to rapturous responses from audiences. The song, and May’s lyric within it – reckon the lawyers – made Cyrus very famous and very wealthy.
It also notes that, while May was never contacted and asked to license his words, Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick are listed as co-writers on ‘We Can’t Stop’. This is due to a sample of their track ‘La Di Da Di’, which was properly licensed ahead of the song’s release.
May owns “around 50%” of the ‘We Run Things’ copyright, says the lawsuit, but also, in 2017, he sought and was granted protection for “all musical arrangements” within the work from the US Copyright Office. This includes his “unique, original and creative lyrical phrase”.
The lawyers then list a number of similar cases they believe set precedents of sorts that support May’s claim. This includes a 2004 dispute in which “Beyonce’s ladies-group Destiny’s Child” were sued by songwriter Ricky Allen, who believed elements of a song he wrote had been used for one of their tracks, ‘Cater 2 U’. That case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum the following year.
Although ‘We Can’t Stop’ was indeed a very successful single for Cyrus, it only went to number two in the US Billboard Hot 100. Ironically, it was kept off the top by Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, itself the subject of a multi-million dollar copyright infringement case.
The ‘Blurred Lines’ legal battle was decided by a jury – something one of the lawyers representing Thicke later argued should never have happened. May’s lawyers too are requesting that the case against Cyrus also be heard by a jury. Although it remains to be seen if it ever gets that far. It is more likely – especially as the lawsuit already references it as an option – that the case will be settled out of court.