Why Music Producer Dr. Luke Sues People Who Claim He Copies Songs (Analysis)

Behind hit songs by Britney Spears and Katy Perry, the producer — who recently resolved a defamation lawsuit by the Bellamy Brothers -- provokes discussion about whether he takes his inspiration too far, so what’s really behind the music?
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Britney Spears' hit song "Hold It Against Me" didn't copy a tune by the Bellamy Brothers. So says a legal filing in Florida federal court yesterday that resolves a defamation lawsuit brought by one of Spears' prolific songwriters, Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald. What can we learn here?

Dr. Luke is one of music's biggest modern success stories. In the past decade, he has created hit songs for such musicians as Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson and Spears.

He's also a guy that provokes a lot of discussion on music blogs and message boards about whether he takes his inspiration a bit too far. Think of him as the music industry's version of Quentin Tarantino without the fanboy accolades. He has a knack for prompting suspicious YouTube users to make side-by-side comparisons of his work and the alleged originals. Sometimes, Dr. Luke winds up in court. A number of his songs, including Lavigne's "Girlfriend," Chris Daughtry’s “Feels Like Tonight,” and Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" have triggered legal disputes.

If creating songs has its dangers in an era where amateur musiciologists like to go on YouTube and play copyright cop, Dr. Luke seems to have found one legal antidote -- the preemptory defamation strike. 

Earlier this year, producers the Bellamy Brothers publicly voiced concern that the Spears song, "Hold It Against Me," plagiarized their own tune, "If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body, Would You Hold It Against Me."

"Howard and I have no personal beef with Britney," David Bellamy told TMZ last January. "She's a talented gal. But professionally, well, in all honesty, we feel completely ripped off. Where's the originality?"

Dr Luke, who produced the song, attacked by filing a defamation claim in March.

Now, the case has been settled, with the Bellamy Brothers agreeing on Monday to acknowledge there was no copying or wrongdoing. As part of the settlement filed in court, the parties agreed to bear their own attorney costs.

We'd leave it there except this isn't the only instance of Dr. Luke suing for defamation over an allegation of copying.

Three years back, he sued members of the band the Asphalt, which had put up a MySpace clip comparing Daughtry's "Feels Like Tonight" to one of their own songs. Some of the band members responded to this defamation claim by suing Dr. Luke for copyright infringement. The case was then settled with the parties stipulating that their respective compositions “were each created independently of each other without copying or wrongdoing.”

Dr. Luke is also currently engaged in a similar kind of dispute with the songwriter Chrissy over claims of copying her song, "My Slushy" to create Ke$ha's "Tik Tok." The lawsuit is still pending, but integral to the case is a side-by-side video on YouTube that was posted by one of Chrissy's fans.

In an interview with American Songwriter earlier this year, Dr. Luke described his troubles this way: 

"These days, anyone can put two songs up and make a mash-up by changing the key of this one and say, 'Oh, these songs are similar.' A lot of things are similar. But you don’t get sued for being similar. It needs to be the same thing. Almost doesn’t count. Close but no cigar. People are suing for close. There are standard chord progressions that everyone uses. There are plenty of songs that are really similar and they never sued each other. We are a very litigious society today. You can fall on the sidewalk and sue the city."

As for Dr. Luke's own litigious streak, there may be some hints in the Chrissy lawsuit about why he's been so aggressive in pursuing those who would dare accuse him of plagiarism. According to the complaint:

"By falsely claiming to Sony Music Label Group that ‘Tik Tok’ infringes ‘My Slushy’, these Defendants caused RCA/Jive… to demand indemnification based on a breach of warranty and representation solely as a result of these Defendants’ baseless claims of infringement. By these Defendants’ wrongful actions, Plaintiffs’ publishing income interest in ‘Tik Tok’ has been damaged.”

Dr. Luke certainly has his own legal style. It's hard to know which subject matter -- copyright infringement or defamation -- is provoking more lawsuits these days, but since plagiarism is a sensitive topic and since defamation plaintiffs can be sensitive folks, it makes sense that mere talk of possible song rip-offs would compel a famous song producer to bring allegations over allegations. Such is the creative age we live in.

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner