Another day, another high-profile lawsuit against a pop star at the top of their game. Dua Lipa, currently performing for stadium crowds on the North American leg of her Future Nostalgia tour, has come under fire, with not one but two copyright infringement lawsuits against the same song: “Levitating.” The 2020 release, which is currently No. 16 on the Billboard U.S. Hot 100, has remained on the charts for an impressive 70 weeks, peaking at No. 2 last year. Despite never reaching the No. 1 spot, “Levitating” was nevertheless crowned Billboard’s top song of 2021, and it’s no wonder why—the song is catchy as can be. Even the pared-down performance from her Tiny Desk concert (my personal favorite version of the song) is a certified smash.
When the accusations that Dua Lipa and her songwriting team had plagiarized parts of “Levitating” surfaced earlier this month, they prompted an explosion of internet commentary. Fans rushed to her defense, trolls went on the attack in comments, and musicians raced to weigh in about whether the similarity between the songs is coincidental or if Lipa and Co. copied from other songs without appropriate permission. What’s remarkable is not only the sheer amount of commentary but also the passion and diversity of opinions. This story, as a result, is shaping up to be the most polarizing music copyright case since the court ruling on “Blurred Lines” in 2015 (upheld on appeal in 2018) that cost Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams $5 million for plagiarizing Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” (More on this case later.)
An important question, it seems, is why this episode has elicited such strong, differing opinions. To figure out what’s behind the controversy, I’d like to explore what evidence there is to support each viewpoint using the methods of “forensic musicology,” practiced by expert witnesses that provide testimony to determine if one artist copied from another. The word forensic may seem rather dramatic in this context, conjuring bloody crime scenes and laboratories we might see on a late-night syndicated cable TV show. Nevertheless, using all available evidence to figure out if an artist infringed on the copyrighted, intellectual property of another is important business.
The news of the first lawsuit broke on March 1. Obscure reggae act Artikal Sound System accused Lipa and her Warner Records songwriting team (Bosco Kante, Clarence Coffee Jr., Sarah Hudson, and Stephen Kozmeniuk) of plagiarizing their 2017 song, “Live Your Life.” How similar are the two songs? Well, pretend you’ve been selected to serve in the jury to resolve this case. Compare the score for the chorus of each track in a mock courtroom “Exhibit A,” as seen below:
Exhibit A: “Live Your Life” (2017) vs. “Levitating” (2020)
Looking only at these excerpts of each song, this might seem like an open-and-shut case. The chorus of “Levitating” and “Live Your Life” do have a lot in common: They feature the same chord progression in the same key. The vocal melodies of each include many of the same notes and rhythms. And there are even similarities in the lyrics; both use the words “all night” and reference other features of the night sky (moonlight, etc.). Given the extent of the overlap between them as revealed through comparative analysis, it’s easy to assume that the writers of “Levitating” simply must have heard “Live Your Life.” YouTuber Rick Beato arrives at this conclusion in his March 3 video. He calls this part of both songs “virtually identical,” and suggests that asks, “What are the chances that both songs are in the exact same key? … I mean, really all you need is that much of the song to be similar … to have a legitimate case in a copyright suit.”
Despite the similarity between these two examples, there is equally strong evidence to the contrary. In an interview about the case with Rolling Stone, Berklee College of Music professor and forensic musicologist Joe Bennett notes that the passage in question is rather short. As there are only three or so measures with truly notable similarity, he said on March 4 that he believes this case to be an “interesting coincidence,” adding that “coincidental similarity is more common than people think it is.” Besides, Bennett argues, plenty of other songs use this chord progression, like No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” and Helloween’s “Forever and One.” Adam Neely, who produces an excellent music theory YouTube channel, raised further doubts in a video from March 6. He mentions more songs that feature the same chord loop, like DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean,” and demonstrates that although the two songs are quite similar, there are earlier models from which both songs most likely draw—namely, OutKast’s 1998 “Rosa Parks.”
So while a slickly made “Exhibit A” comparing each song might be enough to persuade a jury that the writers of “Levitating” had light fingers, the similarity is short-lived. The passage in question is not terribly distinctive, and it seems unlikely that someone in Dua Lipa’s circle was even aware of the music by a little-known reggae band from Florida with a small online presence.
News of the second lawsuit broke on March 4, only three days after the first. This time, L. Russell Brown and Sandy Linzer alleged that Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” borrows from at least one of two different songs: one that they had written, Cory Daye’s 1979 “Wiggle and Giggle All Night,” and a song that had copied it the following year, Miguel Bosé’s “Don Diablo.” Despite the difference in language (and lyrics) between the tracks (one is in English, the other in Spanish), Brown and Linzer won a copyright infringement case in 1987 against Miguel Bosé for lifting a complete verse from their song. Now they believe that they are due credit and compensation for the success of “Levitating,” because, they say, the song’s opening verse sounds like their work—or Bosé’s Spanish-language twist.
Listening to the respective opening sections of “Wiggle and Giggle All Night” and “Levitating,” we’d find that both the pace of vocal delivery and timing of the syllables are strikingly similar. We might also notice that these verses have the same overall shape; that is, each starts with a pair of matching opening lines, followed by a contrasting third line, and a more conclusive fourth line that closes the section. Just like with the first lawsuit, a cursory, comparative analysis seems to suggest foul play from Lipa’s camp—and in this case, it’s a full eight measures with corresponding features (instead of a mere three in the first case). But if we dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that such verse structure is incredibly common. Music theorists even have a name for it: statement, restatement, departure, conclusion, or SRDC for short.
What’s more, if we consider the entire sonic tapestry—the vibe of each song—the two tracks no longer seem to have much in common at all. “Wiggle and Giggle” is in a bright, major key with a Latin feel, featuring acoustic instruments. “Levitating,” however, is in a sultry minor key, and is in a disco style with a more electronic, synth-heavy sound. If the verses of “Levitating” were inspired by any other source, it was probably a more recent one. The opening synth riff of Ricky Martin’s “Vente Pa’ Ca,” for example, has at least as much in common with “Levitating” as does “Wiggle and Giggle.”
Why might a judge or jury be persuaded that plagiarism has occurred in this case? Because the two songs look more similar on paper than they sound. Pretend again that you’ve been selected for the jury here and have been instructed to compare the notes in Exhibit B, as follow:
Exhibit B: Line two from the opening verse of “Wiggle and Giggle All Night” (1979) vs. line two from the opening verse of “Levitating” (2020)
Presented with only this information, it might seem reasonable to conclude that Lipa’s team did copy Brown and Linzer’s work. There appears to be the same five-note descending pattern in both songs, with almost identical rhythm. But because the two songs are in different keys— see the different number symbols for sharps (the hashtag-type icons) at the beginning of the line—some of the notes in the first measure are different (despite looking the same on paper). The context for each melody also differs significantly. In “Wiggle and Giggle” this entire line is sung over a B major chord; in “Levitating,” there is a four-chord loop that includes a B minor chord twice (Bm F♯m Em Bm). And the two melodies even use different parts of the scale. In “Wiggle and Giggle,” the notes are Re Do Ti La Sol, while in “Levitating, we instead find Sol Fa Me Re Do.
When push comes to shove, do I think that Dua Lipa and her team are guilty of copyright infringement? Not at all. But do I think that a jury could be convinced that passages of “Levitating” were plagiarized? Absolutely. If an expert witness focused on the notated courtroom exhibits and only played short segments of each song, a jury could easily be swayed. And besides, everyone loves a David and Goliath story: Given the success that “Levitating” has found, it’s easy to get swept up in the (likely false) narrative of a struggling artist toiling away in obscurity, only for famous pop star to make a smash hit by stealing their work.
Since there is strong evidence on each side, I won’t be placing any bets on the outcome of either lawsuit. The only prediction I’ll make is that we should expect a long, contentious legal battle rivaling only the infamous “Blurred Lines” case. We can only hope that “Levitating” doesn’t end up as a cautionary tale in the way that “Blurred Lines” has—the 2015 ruling on this song has had profound consequences on the music industry. New York Times writer Ben Sisario quoted many songwriters who shared that they have been extra cautious in recent years, walking on eggshells for fear of being slapped with a copyright infringement lawsuit. If either Artikal Sound System or Linzer and Brown win their case, songwriters may have even more to worry about. Will one measure of similar music be legitimate grounds for a lawsuit then?
I’ll be watching how these cases develop over the coming months, or, more likely, years. For now, though, I plan to keep “Levitating” on my dance party playlist.