Britney Spears' Battle Over Song Rights

Britney Spears' Battle Over Song Rights

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq., December 2009

A few years ago, songwriter Steve Wallace experienced déjˆ vu when he heard Britney Spears' hit song "Sometimes" on the radio. Why? Wallace says that he wrote this ditty nine years before Spears recorded it, and now he is suing the pop princess for his share. He's working with a poor man's copyright - a copy of the song in question that he mailed to himself a few weeks after he wrote it. Copyright law says owners are due $150,000 for each infringement. Can Wallace prevail in court?

You're driving along listening to the latest release from the newest teen sensation. The lyrics are sticking in your head like superglue—definitely the makings of a Billboard hit. But wait...maybe this is so addictive because you've heard it somewhere before? Like on your home stereo when you recorded it yourself a few years ago?

Songwriter Steve Wallace experienced a moment similar to this when he heard Britney Spears' hit song "Sometimes" on the radio. Why? Wallace says he wrote this ditty nine years before Spears recorded it. Now, he's suing the pop princess for his share. This May, Wallace filed a lawsuit against Spears, her album promoter, and various recording and publishing companies associated with the singer.

Spears burst onto the music scene in 1998 with the song "Hit Me Baby One More Time." Since then, she's had plenty more hit records. Not to mention starring in a movie and her own reality show with husband, Kevin. There's even a baby on the way. Does this copyright infringement suit threaten to dampen the pop princess' reputation?

How did this instant chartbuster end up in the hands (and its proceeds in the pockets) of Britney Spears? According to Steve Wallace, he wrote the song "Sometimes" in 1990. Then, he submitted it to publishers in 1994. In 1997, he submitted it to a lyric contest in Pennsylvania. The next year it came out under Spears' name and propelled her to stardom. Now, he wants his share. And under copyright law, that would mean $150,000 for each infringement.

To support his claim, Wallace is relying on what is known as a "poor man's copyright." This term refers to the practice of mailing your own work to yourself to date the material with a postmark. Wallace claims he mailed "Sometimes" to himself only a few weeks after he wrote it. He didn't obtain a formal copyright for the song until 2003. This was already four years after Spears had a copyright to the song "Sometimes."

Is Wallace's poor man's copyright all the evidence he has? He reportedly has an email from Spears stating, "I now know for a fact that you wrote sometimes [sic]. But there's nothing I can do about it. That's all I can say about it."

As for the poor man's copyright, it's an age-old practice. It's typically used by people who want to make sure they own the rights to their work. But does the "poor man's copyright" hold up in a court of law? The bad news for Wallace is there hasn't been a successful case using this age-old defense. Of course, that could be simply because many copyright suits don't make it to the courtroom.

Do you need a poor man's copyright to protect your work?

The simple answer is no. An original work is copyrighted once it has been started and fixed in a tangible form. In the case of a song, this means either recording the song or putting the lyrics to paper. In other words, a copyright doesn't have to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to be protected. And there's no need to mail a copy to yourself. Registration simply provides proof of ownership. Of course, there are benefits to having this proof. It means you could collect greater damages in a lawsuit. And you can't file an infringement suit without having your copyright registered.

So, if you are in the business of songwriting and plan to shop your work around, you should consider a copyright. It's better to plan ahead than wait to hear your baby on the radio—as you sit penniless.

And what will be the outcome of the Spears' song snafu? Probably an out of court settlement. Reports say the two songs are nearly identical lyrically. The singing sensation probably didn't know much about the history of the song before she recorded it. Judging from the hush-hush nature of the lawsuit's existence, everyone would like it to go away quietly. After all, Britney's energies are focused on other projects right now, like her new baby.

Wallace's claim certainly won't stop similar copyright infringements. Hopefully for Spears, the next time someone hands her a sure hit, she'll be more cautious about where it came from. And this will be the only time she's hit with a copyright infringement suit.