katy perry dark horse copyright infringment

Katy Perry & Juicy J Lose Copyright Lawsuit to Christian Rapper Flame

This one has been cooking for years in the background. I caught wind of it years ago and forgot about it, only to see it finally come to a head in the courts.

The Background of the Dark Horse Saga

In 2013, Katy Perry releases a song "Dark Horse" that features an instrumental and a rap verse by Juicy J, where the final touches were applied by Dr. Luke. It's the lead single from her fourth album called Prism and quickly builds momentum and hits the #1 spot on the Billboard's Pop Songs chart.

It's a neat mixture of trap beats mixed with some techno synths and pop singing. Take a quick listen to the song here, skipping around to hear the various elements:

Now, lots of people brush off the Christian music industry because it's really only attractive to Christians. There's tons of cases of that industry getting their songs copied, because I guess people think they can get away with it because it's a "smaller" niche industry.

But there's tons of fans out there and their music videos and sales hit numbers as big as any other artist due to the diehard and exclusive nature of the fanbase.

So of course people noticed that this "Dark Horse" song sounded eerily similar to a song by the group Flame called "Joyful Noise" that featured two artists, a rapper named Lecrae and the singer and guitarist John Reilly.

It was released in 2008 on Flame's fourth album Our World: Redeemed. There's various uploads of their song and video on YouTube with views that easily surpass 10 million in total. It won a Gospel Music Association award and the album was nominated for a Grammy, so it's not like it was some tiny, unheard of song.

After you've heard some of "Dark Horse" above, check out "Joyful Noise" below:

You've probably already formed an opinion on whether or not "Dark Horse" was simply influenced by, straight up copied, or is coincidentally similar to "Joyful Noise."

The Similarities Between Joyful Noise and Dark Horse

To be honest, in my own opinion, the similarities between these two songs extend only to two elements: the trap drums and the techno synth line. I'll just flat out tell you, I think "Dark Horse" was inspired by "Joyful Noise."

You'd be surprised at the musical knowledge of these random musicians. Like when Kanye West samples something as eccentric as a psychedelic progressive rock song from a solo album by Jon Anderson of Yes.

They listen to everything. It's not unexpected that Juicy J would have heard this song (it's actually very, very likely, and I'll tell you why below). Not to mention Katy Perry was actually a Christian artist when she started her music career as Katy Hudson.

As far as the trap beat goes, they're all pretty similar in sound with the big 808 kick drum in a sparse pattern. This drum pattern is extremely similar but you can't copyright that alone. And to be honest all trap beats are pretty similar.

But then you tack on the synth lead melody and you start to go "Hrmm, maybe there's something here." But it's still just your typical "four on the floor" melody, which has been used since time immemorial.

But then you realize it's almost the exact same chord progression, which supports the idea they yanked the concept. But then you realize it's a dead simple progression if you can even call it that, just dancing in the I chord during the "rip off" part.

Christian rapper Flame wins lawsuit against Katy Perry over Dark Horse song
Flame (left) and Katy Perry as seen in her Dark Horse video

That's a very basic analysis of the similarities and it's truly up in the air. It's not impossible that they'd independently come up with the same song when it's so dead simple in terms of music theory. But then you have to look at the similarities in the song's lyrics and topics and that's where things get real shifty.

Dark Horse vs. Joyful Noise: Song Topics

Here's where things get weird and I'm sure this played a part in the jury's deliberation. Katy Perry and Juicy J both are outright proponents of the occult and Satanism in their songs and music videos. Even Beyonce has a restraining order against her over "extreme witchcraft."

Juicy J is a member of the Three Six Mafia, who changed their name from Triple Six Mafia to be more marketable because the music industry knew the outright Satanism wouldn't fly.

Both the occult and Satanism have a lot to do with Christianity and spirituality in general so that only builds confidence that they would have encountered this song, not legally but at least in the minds of the jury.

But then if you compare the two songs side by side, they're both about spirituality, if not opposite ends of the spectrum. One's talking about dark magic and alludes to cannibalism and other similar topics, and the other is about the mystical experience related to god consciousness and being redeemed through salvation.

katy perry dark horse copyright infringment
Katy Perry from the Dark Horse video

So what, you may be thinking. Same here, but we weren't on the jury. It's really about what a group of 12 of our peers thought. And when you look at the song topics, the interests of the artists alleged to have engaged in copyright infringement, and the musical elements themselves, a case does start to build.

The Legal Verdict

Marcus Gray (the real name of the artist Flame), filed the suit against Katy Perry, Juicy J, and Dr. Luke in 2014 as "Dark Horse" kept climbing the charts and reaching more success. I'm not sure why it took 5 years to finally reach a trial, but only this Monday did the week-long trial wrap up with a ruling.

Katy Perry and her collaborators all claimed to have never heard the song "Joyful Noise." It's impossible to prove that they have or haven't. But the jury decided that the music was far too similar for that to be the case. They could only have heard the original song and lifted elements for their own use.

juicy j from dark horse video with katy perry
Juicy J from the Dark Horse video

At the end of the day, the judge ruled Katy Perry, Juicy J, Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Cirkut, and songwriter Sarah Hudson all financially liable to Flame. They have yet to decide exactly what the legal damages and financial penalties will be, but we will update this article below as soon as that information is made public.

Conclusion

I don't know what the truth is here. Sometimes the jury gets it wrong, so who knows. But what I do know is most of the time copyright infringement is deliberate. Big artists do it knowing they'll never get caught or the amount of profit will outweigh the losses.

Look up how many songs Led Zeppelin ripped off of other artists. Check out our post on the Ghostbusters theme song copyright infringement case. Check out our post on Childish Gambino copying his "This is America" song from another smaller artist.

The number of cases out there are nearly endless with most proven to be fact, whether purposeful or not. It's not new. The Beach Boys got caught ripping off Chuck Berry. We could list instances forever.

So if you're an artist and you're heavily influenced by another artist, you need to either cut them in on the songwriting credits up front or rework the song completely. In this day and age, with the internet and everyone able to communicate immediately to a worldwide audience, you will not get away with it.

Jared H. Headshot Jared has surpassed his 20th year in the music industry. He acts as owner, editor, lead author, and web designer of LedgerNote, as well as co-author on all articles. He has released 4 independent albums and merchandise to global sales. He has also mixed, mastered, & recorded for countless independent artists. Learn more about Jared & The LN Team here.