The US District Court has ruled that Katy Perry’s song Dark Horse did not infringe copyright in Joyful Noise by rapper Flame, overturning an earlier jury verdict.

In 2019, a Californian jury concluded that Dark Horse had copied elements of Flame’s song, and awarded him almost $3 million.  In the new ruling, the Court found that the relevant elements of Perry’s song were insufficiently original to warrant copyright protection, in a win for Perry.

The presiding judge wrote:  “It is undisputed in this case, even viewing the evidence in the light most favourable to the plaintiffs, that the signature elements of the eight-note ostinato in Joyful Noise… is not a particularly unique or rare combination.”

The judge added that a relatively “common eight-note combination of unprotected elements that happens to be played in a timbre common to a particular genre of music can’t be so original as to warrant copyright protection”. Timbre is the quality and tone of a sound that makes it unique.

The decision comes a week after another US court considered a similar case involving Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.

The Zeppelin case began in 2014, when journalist Michael Skidmore sued on behalf of Randy Wolfe’s estate, the late frontman of the band Spirit, claiming that the iconic opening instrumental riff in Stairway to Heaven was lifted from Spirit’s 1968 song Taurus.

The verdict in that case was ultimately in Zeppelin’s favour and was quoted in the District Court’s ruling on Dark Horse.

The Led Zeppelin ruling may also affect a high-profile copyright claim involving Ed Sheeran’s song Thinking Out Loud.  That case – in which Sheeran is alleged to have copied elements of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On – had been due to go to trial last year, but the judge paused it pending the outcome of the Stairway to Heaven appeal.

Despite recent developments, the Dark Horse case may not be over just yet.  Flame’s legal team have already indicated they intend to appeal the latest ruling to a higher court.