Natasha vs. Nikita: Elton John finally vindicated in case of copyright claim brought by unlucky lover and lonely lyricist

Back in 1982, Guy Hobbs, a photographer working on a Russian cruise ship, enjoyed a brief, shipboard courtship with a Russian waitress.  Alas, it was not to be for Hobbs, and, as artists often do, Hobbs wrote a song about the sad romance.  He named it “Natasha,” registered the copyright in the U.K., and sent it to several music publishers, hoping, no doubt, to turn the experience to some profit, at least.

Unlucky in love, unlucky in life, Hobbs could apparently find no takers for his wistful song.  However, the publishing company Big Pig Music, Ltd., one of the companies that had earlier declined Hobbs’ song, several years later registered a copyright for the Elton John and Bernie Taupin song “Nikita,” which went on to become a huge hit for Elton John in 1985 (See Elton John singing Nikita here).  Hobbs claims he first saw the written lyrics of “Nikita” in 2001.  He contacted John and Taupin to demand payment for what he alleged was copyright infringement; but again, not surprisingly, he was rebuffed.

Hobbs sued Sir Elton Hercules John, et. al in District Court, lost, and, apparently undaunted, appealed to the Seventh Circuit.  Interestingly, even though the action was brought 27 years after the alleged infringement, John did not raise the three-year statute of limitations for copyright infringement as part of his defense.  Perhaps it was a matter of artistic pride for John to show outright that “Nikita” did not infringe on Hobbs’ “Natasha” rather than to win on what some might think of as a legal technicality.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in its July 17, 2013 opinion (you can read the full opinion here), looked at the lyrics in detail.  Hobbs had argued that the two songs shared a unique combination of the following elements:

  1. A theme of impossible love between a Western man and a Communist woman during the Cold War;
  2. References to events that never happened;
  3. Descriptions of the beloved’s light eyes;
  4. References to written correspondence to the beloved;
  5. Repetition of the beloved’s name, the word “never,” the phrase “I need you,” and some form of the phrase “you will never know;” and
  6. A title which is a one-word, phonetically-similar title consisting of a three-syllable female Russian name, both beginning with the letter “N” and ending with the letter “A.”

The Court, however, pointed out that the Copyright Act does not protect general ideas but only the particular expression of an idea; and even at the level of the particular expression, the Copyright Act does not protect “incidents, characters or settings which are as a practical matter indispensable, or at least standard, in the treatment of a given topic.”  In other words, while a writer can certainly copyright a specific expression of a particular story, nobody can be allowed a monopoly on all stories about impossible romances, where the lovers are separated by the Cold War, and the Russian woman has pale eyes and a name beginning with “N” and ending with “A.”

In fact, the court found that the two stories in this case were substantially different in many other ways, one telling the story of two lovers forced to part ways, the other a story of a man who briefly sees and desires a woman he can never meet as they are separated by “guns and gates.”  And because the two stories were substantially different, Hobbs’ copyright infringement claim failed as a matter of law.

“Oh, Nikita you will never know….”

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